Bay Area Health Officials Urge Everyone to Wear Masks Indoors, Even if Vaccinated

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Two masked restaurant workers in San Francisco wait for customers to come inside. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

Health officials in seven Bay Area counties — Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Sonoma — on Friday strongly urged all residents, regardless of vaccination status, to again wear masks in public indoor spaces amid a recent sharp uptick in new COVID-19 cases fueled by the highly contagious delta variant.

In a joint statement, officials noted that fully vaccinated people are "well-protected from infections and serious illness due to known COVID-19 variants including Delta variants," but stressed that those who are unvaccinated are at serious risk. The new recommendation, they said, was intended to better ensure that unvaccinated people wear masks, and "as an extra precautionary measure for all."

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"Out of an abundance of caution, people are recommended to wear masks indoors in settings like grocery or retail stores, theaters, and family entertainment centers, even if they are fully vaccinated as an added layer of protection for unvaccinated residents," the statement said. Officials also urged businesses to adopt universal masking requirements for their employees and customers in indoor areas.

"After vaccination, masking is the next most powerful tool we have to protect ourselves and each other during this latest wave of infections," said Alameda County Health Officer Dr. Nicholas Moss in the statement, imploring unvaccinated people to get their shots immediately.

Although coronavirus rates are still much lower than they were earlier this year, new cases have jumped throughout the Bay Area and across California — and much of the country — almost exclusively among unvaccinated people.

There were more than 4,600 new cases recorded in California on Friday, the most since late February, although a far cry from the winter peak that saw an average of more than 40,000 per day. The state also reported a seven-day average of 5.4 new cases per 100,000 people, up from a low of 2 cases per 100,000 at the beginning of June, with hospitalizations now topping 2,000, their highest level since April.

"We have been seeing case rates and hospitalization rates really going up," said Dr. Chris Farnitano, the health officer for Contra Costa County, where case rates have more than doubled in recent weeks. They started rising after the state relaxed business rules on June 15, he said, and then really shot up following the July 4 holiday weekend, with the delta variant responsible for a large majority of new infections.

"It's almost exclusively in the unvaccinated population, but there are some vaccinated individuals who are still getting sick, although at much lower rates," he said. "And so, to protect everyone, we're asking everyone to take this extra simple step to go back to wearing masks in indoor public settings to help reduce the spread of COVID."

In June, the more aggressive delta variant made up 43% of all specimens sequenced in California, health officials said, and is now responsible for 58% of new infections across the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We're looking at case rates that are 10 to 20 times higher in the individuals who are unvaccinated," Farnitano said. "So it's really a pandemic of the unvaccinated at this point."

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The new regional health recommendation comes a day after Los Angeles County officials announced that masks will again be required in indoor public spaces starting Sunday, regardless of vaccine status. It's the first county in California to reinstate that mandate since the state dropped it last month for vaccinated people.

Although Bay Area health officials stopped short of a full-on requirement, they said they would continue to monitor transmission rates, hospitalizations, deaths and increasing vaccination rates throughout the region in the coming weeks.

"That requirement may still come," Farnitano said. "We'd like to see what effect a strong recommendation may have."

The Bay Area has some of the highest vaccination rates in the state, but those rates have slowed considerably in recent months, with a significant portion of the adult population still unvaccinated and highly susceptible to the new variant.

That's the scenario in Contra Costa County, where over 80% of residents 12 and over have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, Farnitano noted.

"So overall, we're doing really well as a county, but we still have large pockets that have much lower vaccination rates," he said, pointing to cities in the eastern part of the county, like Antioch, Pittsburg and Oakley, where rates are roughly 30% lower, driven in large part by younger adults.

"It's still a sizable population that hasn't been vaccinated yet and is not protected," he added. "First we saw cases go up, then we saw hospitalizations go up. And sadly, we're likely to soon see deaths go up."