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San Diego County asks all residents to mask indoors, whether vaccinated or not

People walk along India Street in Downtown San Diego on Tuesday.
(Sandy Huffaker / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Local officials are endorsing — but not mandating — indoor masking following new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

San Diego County officials asked everyone — fully vaccinated or not — to wear masks in indoor public spaces to slow the spread of the coronavirus, echoing a plea issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier Tuesday.

Unlike Los Angeles County, local officials aren’t mandating indoor masking, simply recommending it. But the new announcement still marks a shift from the county’s message over the past few weeks, during which it has encouraged San Diegans to get vaccinated while asserting that wearing facial coverings is a personal choice.

The news comes hours after the CDC reversed guidance it issued in May, when it said that fully vaccinated people could shed masks in nearly all indoor settings. The rise of the fast-spreading Delta variant of the coronavirus, which now accounts for about 80 percent of new cases across the U.S., called for a change in tactics, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the agency, told reporters. She cited new research suggesting that some fully vaccinated individuals who get infected by the virus carry high enough levels of it to make them infectious.

“This new science is worrisome and, unfortunately, warrants an update to our recommendations,” Walensky said. “The Delta variant is showing every day its willingness to outsmart us, and to be an opportunist in areas where we have not shown a fortified response against it.”

The agency is asking all Americans living in areas where the spread of the coronavirus is substantial or high to wear masks in indoor public spaces, such as stores, schools and other settings where people who don’t live with each other get together.

The guidance applies to any county that has had 50 or more new infections per 100,000 residents over the past seven days. San Diego County easily meets that threshold. According to the latest data available on the CDC’s online data tracker, the county logged about 130 cases per 100,000 residents from July 19 to 25, qualifying as an area where the spread of the virus is high.

In recent weeks, the number of new COVID-19 cases in San Diego County has risen rapidly, mirroring state and nationwide trends. In late June, it was common for the county to report 100 or fewer cases each day. But now, 400 or more daily cases has become the norm, with county officials reporting that they were notified of 1,264 cases on Friday, the highest count since Feb. 5. Hospitalizations have risen, too, with 200 San Diegans in the hospital due to coronavirus infections as of last week, compared to around 70 residents a month ago.

On Tuesday, the region reported 720 new infections, 24 more hospitalizations and 5 COVID-19 deaths, based on a comparison of the latest totals for each of these categories to yesterday’s counts. The county’s coronavirus dashboard notes that the actual number of new cases may differ slightly, as the county occasionally finds and removes non-COVID cases from these figures.

Surge is driven mostly by Delta variant in unvaccinated people, county says

As of early Tuesday evening, guidelines from the California Department of Public Health had not been updated to match the CDC’s new stance, despite Gov. Gavin Newsom saying around noon that the state would issue a statement within a “number of hours.”

Instead, CDPH sent The San Diego Union-Tribune an email saying the agency is conducting “a full review of the updated recommendations released by the CDC today and will evaluate existing guidance to determine the best path forward to protect Californians from the spread of COVID-19 and the highly contagious Delta variant.”

Experts such as Susan Kiene, a global health specialist at San Diego State University, have been deeply concerned by the ongoing surge and were relieved to see the new CDC guidelines.

“I absolutely agree that this was the right call,” said Kiene in an email. “We need every tool we have right now to address the rising numbers of cases and hospitalizations. While we still want everyone to get vaccinated, indoor masking is a simple, easy, yet effective prevention measure that everyone can take to reduce risk for themselves and others until case rates and transmission rates decline.”

An infectious disease model generated by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation shows that masking could dramatically slow the spread of the virus in the coming months. But the model assumes a 95 percent masking rate, and, while one study of U.S. retail shoppers reports that masking rates reached 90 percent during the summer of 2020, it’s unclear whether such high compliance rates are still feasible given widespread fatigue and frustration with public health precautions.

But Jerry Sanders, former mayor of San Diego and current CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, thinks many business owners won’t mind the new guidance. After all, he says, a facial covering is far less burdensome than being told to shut down or operate at 50 percent capacity, and masking up could prevent the region from ever returning to strict lockdowns.

“It’s really not a major step,” Sanders said. “I think it’s pretty cautionary, and I think it’s something that the business community will embrace. A lot of livelihoods are at stake. And if the difference is (between) wearing a mask and slowing down, I think that’s what we need to do.”

Marco Li Mandri, chief executive administrator of the Little Italy Association, which represents the owners, residents and businesses of the downtown neighborhood, echoed that message. Li Mandri added that as long as restaurants can serve patrons outdoors without capacity limits or masking requirements, he doesn’t expect restaurateurs to bristle at the new guidance.

“We know the virus is not gone,” he said. “That’s the key thing. It’s changing its form and content and we have to do what we can to stop it. Until it gets stopped, it’s going to impact negatively the entire economy. I think most of the restaurants in Little Italy will say the same thing.”

The latest guidance is new enough that many employers are still figuring out how to respond. A spokesperson for the city of San Diego, the largest city in the county, said the city is currently in discussions around requiring all employees to wear masks. Spokespersons for the next two largest cities, Chula Vista and Oceanside, said that they’re currently only requiring city employees who aren’t fully vaccinated or who’ve declined to share their vaccination status to wear facial coverings indoors.

The U-T reached out to the state’s department of industrial relations, which runs the division of occupational safety and health, also known as Cal/OSHA, to ask if the agency will alter its masking policy for the state’s businesses. A spokesperson responded that the department would provide additional information on Wednesday. Cal/OSHA had initially considered requiring all employees to wear masks indoors unless everyone has been fully vaccinated, but the agency backtracked after intense public backlash, instead aligning with CDC and CDPH guidelines.

Experts weigh in on Cal/OSHA’s new mask rules for California workers

During the CDC briefing, Walensky reiterated that vaccines are still safe and highly effective against the virus, noting that those who aren’t fully vaccinated are about seven times more likely to get sick with COVID-19 and 20 times more likely to end up in the hospital compared to people who’ve gotten two doses of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“This moment, and, most importantly, the associated illness, suffering and death could have been avoided with higher vaccination coverage in the country,” Walensky said.

Olivia Stafford feels the same way — even though the 28-year-old Normal Heights resident, who works in public relations, tested positive for the coronavirus last week despite being fully vaccinated. She’s been feeling tired, feverish, congested and has yet to fully recover her sense of smell, but she knows things could have been worse, especially since she has an autoimmune disease.

“I am so thankful that I did decide to get the vaccine because it was still bad with the vaccine, and I can’t imagine how I would have felt if I didn’t have it,” Stafford said. “It just makes me worried for people that are feeling hesitant for whatever reason.”


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