Here’s what Bay Area health officers say will end our

Bay Area health officers Thursday laid out a list of conditions they say each county must meet to end the indoor mask mandate at public places — and it won’t be happening anytime soon.

To shed face masks, counties will have to reach the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention’s yellow “moderate” tier for COVID-19 transmission for at least three weeks, have low and stable hospitalization rates, and either have 80% of the total population fully vaccinated or eight weeks of emergency use authorization of the shots for kids age 5-11.

On Thursday, no one who is part of the pact — Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Marin, Napa, Sonoma counties or the City of Berkeley — was in the CDC’s yellow tier yet, which means masks won’t be coming off indoors until at least November. Solano County didn’t join the others in requiring masks indoors for everyone.

Most Bay Area health departments issued the masking requirements for everyone regardless of vaccine status on Aug. 3, following a sharp rise in cases, hospitalizations and deaths over the summer from the highly infectious delta variant.

With that case surge now receding, and with the Bay Area having some of the highest vaccination rates in the country, the health officers here said it’s time to plan for lifting the mask order.

“Masks and vaccines together have protected residents of Alameda County and the Bay Area during the summer wave” said Alameda County Health Officer Dr. Nicholas Moss. “While we expect COVID-19 and flu to circulate this winter, with more people well-protected from severe illness by vaccination we will be able to loosen mask requirements safely.”

But mask requirements won’t end for everyone. California’s health guidance for the use of face coverings may remain in effect after local masking requirements are lifted, meaning that people who are not fully vaccinated for COVID-19 must continue to wear masks in businesses and indoor public spaces.

The state also requires face coverings for everyone, regardless of vaccination status, in health care facilities, public transit and adult and senior care facilities. California’s masking guidelines in K-12 schools would also not be affected by changes to local health orders.

So how do Bay Area counties stack up under Thursday’s new mask metric?

  • Transmission: Napa and Solano are still in what the CDC considers the red “high transmission” tier based on the total number of new cases per 100,000 people and percentage of positive tests for COVID-19 over the last seven days. The red tier is for 100 or more cases and 10% or more positive. The other Bay Area counties are in the orange “substantial” tier, with 50-99 cases per 100,000 people and 8-9.99% positive tests; To reach the yellow “moderate” tier, cases must drop to 10-49 per 100,000 and 5-7.99% positive tests.
  • Hospitalization: The health officers did not provide a firm metric, saying only that it’s “in the judgment of the health officer.” But hospitalizations in the region are considered low and stable now.
  • Vaccination: Though the Bay Area counties have high vaccination levels, they’re still short of 80% of their total populations fully vaccinated. The total population of fully vaccinated for local counties Thursday according to the CDC was 77% in Marin, 74% in Santa Clara and San Francisco, 72% in San Mateo, 70% in Alameda and Contra Costa and 67% in Sonoma and Napa. Alternatively, federal health authorities are scheduled to consider an application from Pfizer-BioNTech to grant emergency use of its COVID-19 vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds on Oct. 26. If recommended by that committee and a similar one for the CDC, those agencies could authorize the vaccines for young children later this fall, and the Bay Area mask orders could lift eight weeks after that.

Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said Thursday that the mask orders will likely lift county by county rather than all at once.

“It may be that one county reaches the metric before another adjacent county,” Cody said. “So we’ll probably be lifting masking requirement at different times, because hospitalization and transmission rates differ by county as well as vaccination rates.”

Cody said it’s hard to predict when counties will meet the mask-free threshold: “We have to meet all three metrics.”

Residents can track their county’s progress on transmission and vaccination, which the CDC reports on a dashboard, and Bay Area counties plan to add total population vaccination rates to their own websites, Cody said. The hospitalization metric isn’t easily tracked, she said, but will be based on capacity.

“In Santa Clara County, our hospital capacity is robust, so that metric will be simple to meet,” Cody said. “The metric that’s most important and most challenging is the vaccination metric.”

San Francisco, which has a proof of vaccination requirement to enter many indoor businesses, will separately allow limited lifting of the mask rule Oct. 15 for indoor settings of no more than 100 people where everyone is vaccinated. That can include offices, gyms, carpools, religious gatherings and indoor college classes, but not restaurants and bars, except while guests are eating and drinking.

Lifting a local indoor mask mandate would not prevent businesses, nonprofits, churches or others with public indoor spaces from imposing their own requirements, because COVID-19 easily spreads through airborne droplets, and health officials say face coverings remain highly powerful in preventing its spread.

The Bay Area counties’ approach differed from that of Santa Cruz County, which lifted its indoor mask mandate Sept. 28 based solely on reaching the CDC’s moderate COVID-19 transmission level. The same day Santa Cruz County lifted its mask requirement, the CDC bumped the county’s transmission level back up to the orange “substantial” level. But county officials said they would not reimpose the mask order.

The California Nurses Association noted that in criticizing the Bay Area health officers’ plans for lifting their mask rules.

“This announcement by Bay Area health officials basically says they are okay dropping out of the race to get COVID under control before we have even neared the finish line,” said CNA President Cathy Kennedy.

Cody said health officers will remain vigilant tracking the spread of new variants of the COVID-19 virus as the winter flu season combines with the ongoing pandemic.

“As a safety measure, along with vaccination, face coverings have been key to our success in the Bay Area in reducing transmission and protecting public health,” said San Mateo County Health Officer Dr. Scott Morrow. “As we look toward lifting the mandate, it’s vital for everyone who has not gotten vaccinated to consider getting vaccinated right away.”

Staff Writers Julia Prodis Sulek and Harriet Rowan contributed to this report.

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