SAN JOSE (CBS SF) -- While California will be easing its indoor COVID mask mandate for vaccinated individuals next week, Santa Clara County health officials announced Wednesday that community transmission still remains too high to allow them to follow the lead of state officials in the Silicon Valley.
Santa Clara will be the only county not lifting the mask mandate.
County health officials in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Monterey, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Solano, Sonoma and the City of Berkeley jointly announced Wednesday morning they would be lifting universal mask requirements for most indoor public settings beginning Wednesday, February 16.
"Because our case rates are going down, and because of our immense level of vaccination and boosting in the city, we're able to align with the state and remove the indoor mask requirement for vaccinated people," said San Francisco Health Officer Dr. Susan Philip. "I am not so much concerned, based upon what we know in the science of Omicron and our current data, that we'll have to revisit based on this variant and this surge."
Under the joint announcement, only unvaccinated individuals over age 2 will be required to continue to wear masks in all indoor public settings. Businesses, venue operators and hosts may determine their own path forward to protect staff and patrons and may choose to require all patrons to wear masks.
"We have weathered the worst of the omicron surge. But let's make no mistake: the pandemic is not over," said Dr. Sundari Mase, Sonoma County's Health Officer.
The strict indoor mask requirements were put in place last summer during the surge of the delta variant and remained in place during omicron's steep uptick in the cases.
"Currently we are emerging from the omicron surge and it's been about a month since the peak in our cases," County public health director Dr. Sara Cody told reporters at a Wednesday morning news conference. "But we still have very high levels of community transmission. Still higher than at any other time in the pandemic pre-omicron. So the risk to being exposed to someone with COVID in our community is still high."
"I know that some may be weary of masking while others are anxious about the consequences of people unmasking," she continued. "And there are varying and strong opinions in our community. But ultimately, our job is to follow the science to keep our community as save as possible and to insure that we continue to protect the people who are most venerable."
Cody then went through the checklist of what needs to happen before the masking mandate will be eased in Santa Clara County.
- No. 1 -- Vaccination rates are high -- 84.1 percent are vaccinated -- Cody says county has met this metric
- No. 2 -- Hospitalizations are low and stable -- Cody said hospitalizations have plateaued but not decreased. The county has not met this metric
- No. 3 -- Transmission rates are manageable -- The county has not met this metric
"But this last metric is being adjusted to reflect the difference between delta and omicron," Cody said, adding that when the county dips below a 7-day average of 550 cases a day for week, the county will have met the third metric.
After Feb. 15, unvaccinated people still will be required to be masked indoors, and everyone — vaccinated or not — will have to wear masks in higher-risk areas like public transit and nursing homes and other congregate living facilities, state health officials said. Local governments can continue their own indoor masking requirements. Last week, Los Angeles County's health officials said they intend to keep theirs in place beyond the state deadline.
The state's announcement follows a 65% decline in COVID cases, Gov. Gavin Newsom said.
In San Francisco, after reaching a high on January 9 of 2,258 new cases per day, case rates have rapidly declined to a 7-day average of 552 on February 1 and continue to drop. Meanwhile, hospitalizations, a lagging indicator of disease, have begun to drop and never exceeded the City's capacity during this latest surge because of the City's overall high rates of vaccinations (84%) and boosters (64%).
"Omicron was an immense stress test on our system, and although it presented many difficulties because of the sheer number of people who became infected, we made it through with schools and businesses open and without overwhelming our hospitals because we have built up strong defenses against the virus with our high vaccination and booster rates," said San Francisco's Health Officer Dr. Susan Philip. "We are able to take this next major step of removing the universal indoor mask requirement because we have laid a strong foundation in good public health protections and know we can prevent severe illness, hospitalizations and deaths."
Meanwhile, in Sonoma County after reaching a high on Jan. 10 of 248.7 cases per day per 100,000 residents, case rates have declined to 77.0 cases as of today. Hospitalizations, a lagging indicator of transmission spread, have also declined and never exceeded local capacity during the surge because of the county's high overall rates of vaccination (79.4 percent) and boosters (61.6 percent).
"COVID-19 is still spreading twice as fast in our community today as it was during the peak of the delta surge last August," Dr. Mase said. "As we make this shift toward encouraging everyone to assess their own individual risk, I strongly recommend people who face the greatest risk of illness — our seniors, essential workers and people with underlying health conditions — and the people who care about them to continue to wear their masks indoors in public settings."
UCSF Infectious Disease expert Dr. Peter Chin-Hong said that the increase in community immunity from the widespread of the omicron variant, early COVID intervention treatments and the significant decline in cases are among the reasons he agrees with the state's stance that it's time to loosen mask measures.
Next week's measure will include a vaccination or negative test result requirement for attendees of indoor "mega events" of more than 1,000 people. Masks will also be mandatory for such events. For outdoor events with more than 10,000 people, there is no vaccination requirement but masks or negative tests are recommended.
Business owners, including Toni King, are holding their breath on what counties will decide on Feb. 15. King owns YogaSix studios in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties.
"We are anticipating that the counties will have two different rules," King said. "I would hope that they follow what the state is doing. My dream would be that both of them just say, 'This makes sense, state of California, let's follow suit and make it easier on businesses.'"
Though there won't be a mandate in place, Philip still strongly recommends people continue to mask up for the next several weeks.
"I'm urging people to continue to wear masks indoors. I will continue to wear masks indoors even though I am vaccinated and boosted. We should all be doing that from this point forward until cases come down further," she said.
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