With the rate of COVID-19 transmission declining in the county and vaccination numbers slowly climbing — likely boosted by current and upcoming inoculation requirements — the county’s public health director said Tuesday she can foresee a time when residents will no longer have to wear masks in most indoor settings.
But dropping the county’s mask-wearing mandate will be contingent on continued drops in transmission, more widespread vaccinations and the absence of potentially more virulent strains of the coronavirus.
“I’m very cognizant that when we introduced the mask mandate in June, we noted that it was really related to increased transmission and feeling like we needed to add another layer of protection,” Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday. “And I think we did the right thing. But I also am aware when we have very low transmission and more people vaccinated, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to keep that mask mandate everywhere, assuming of course that we don’t have a dangerous variant that we need to protect ourselves from.
“We are hopeful that with lower transmission and more people vaccinated, we would be able to lift that mask mandate in places where you can count on having lots and lots of people fully vaccinated,” she said.
It’s unclear when the day will come that the mandate can be lifted, with Ferrer noting, “I think we’re going to live with masking as a tool for awhile to come.” She also said the mandate will likely remain in place in schools, particularly in the younger grades since children under age 12 are not yet eligible for vaccinations.
Masks could also remain a requirement in other large settings where people’s vaccination status isn’t being verified.
“But I do see a day where with lower rates of transmission, significantly lower rates of transmission, and many people vaccinated … we’re going to be in a different place and we would absolutely not need those masks everywhere we need them now,” she said.
Supervisor Janice Hahn noted that while the county’s case numbers have been trending downward, she knows “we’ve been here before.”
“I think a lot of us are wondering if we need to brace for another winter surge or if in fact the worst is behind us,” she said. “I’m personally hopeful that this time around the vaccines will make the difference even if we have another surge.”
Supervisor Holly Mitchell noted, however, that while the county’s overall case rate is falling, the rate is a countywide average, and there are some communities were residents remain at higher risk.
“The rate has not lowered equally across the county as a whole, that’s our average rate,” she said.
Ferrer concurred, saying higher transmission rates are persisting in areas with low levels of vaccination among residents. Black residents have long lagged behind other ethnic groups in terms of vaccination rates, particularly among younger residents.
The county on Thursday will begin imposing a vaccination mandate for people to work or patronize indoor bars, wineries, breweries and distilleries, but Ferrer said that pending requirement has not yet translated into an uptick in vaccinations among younger residents.
Also taking effect this Thursday is a rule that anyone attending an outdoor mega-event of 10,000 people or more — such as an NFL football game — must show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 72 hours.
According to Ferrer, as of Sept. 30, 78% of eligible county residents aged 12 and up have received at least one dose of vaccine, while 69% are fully vaccinated. Of the overall county population of 10.3 million people, including those not yet eligible for the shots, 67% have received at least one dose, and 60% are fully vaccinated.
The county on Tuesday reported another 35 deaths due to COVID-19, raising the overall death toll to 26,195. Another 964 new cases were reported, for a pandemic total of 1,464,793.
The average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus remained low at about 1%.
According to state figures, there were 748 COVID-positive patients hospitalized in the county as of Tuesday, down from 768 on Monday. There were 218 of those patients in intensive care, down from 227 a day earlier.
The number of COVID-positive people hospitalized in the county has fallen 32 times in the past 36days, bringing the number down from a summer peak of nearly 1,800.