With COVID-19 cases surging, Bay Area health officers urge but don’t mandate face masks
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Bay Area health officers Friday urged residents to wear face masks in indoor public settings as COVID-19 infections driven by highly contagious virus variants multiply throughout the region.
“If you’ve chosen not to wear a mask in indoor public places recently, now is a good time to start again,” said Dr. George Han, Deputy Health Officer for the County of Santa Clara Public Health Department. “Highly contagious subvariants are spreading here. If you add layers of protection like a high quality mask, it reduces risk to you and the chance you’ll infect others.”
Health officers from the counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Monterey, Napa, San Benito, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and Sonoma as well as the City of Berkeley joined in Friday’s plea for more precautions, which also included advising residents to get vaccine boosters if eligible.
The Bay Area has emerged as a national hot spot for rising cases driven by cousins of the omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that caused a massive wave of infections last winter. But although hospitalizations have risen, they have remained manageable, which health officials attribute to the region’s high vaccination rates.
Alameda County Health Officer Dr. Nicholas Moss, however, noted that the Bay Area has the highest case counts in California with levels not seen since last summer’s delta variant surge, and that numbers likely are higher due to unreported infections detected through home testing.
“Daily reported cases in Alameda County have reached levels seen during the delta wave,” Moss said. “Fortunately, cases remain far below what we observed during the omicron surge, and hospitalizations have shown only modest increases so far. A little caution can help keep it that way.”
The omicron variant first appeared in the U.S. in December, but that version, known as BA.1, has since been replaced by sub-versions known as BA.2, now 56% of cases nationally, and BA.2.12.1, now 43%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
San Francisco, Santa Clara, Alameda, San Mateo, Marin, Sonoma and Santa Cruz counties are now in the CDC’s yellow “moderate” tier for COVID-19 community levels. That indicates cases are starting to put pressure on health care systems and that those at high risk of severe disease should consider wearing masks under CDC guidelines, but the Bay Area health officers’ mask recommendations go further.
In San Francisco, hospitalizations are increasing but remain relatively low compared to previous surges and well within the capacity of the hospital system, Health Officer, Dr. Susan Philip said.
Nationally, 14% of counties are at that medium community level, and 4% at the high level where masks are advised for all indoors in public. Those high community level counties are concentrated in the Northeast, in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
All states that had statewide face mask requirements, including California, dropped them by April. California also lifted its mask requirements for schools, and several schools around the Bay Area have reported clusters of COVID-19 cases among students following spring break and proms.
A requirement to wear masks on public transportation including aircraft, buses and trains was overturned by a judge. But locally, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system still requires them.
San Jose reinstated its mask mandate for city employees last week, and Oakland has never dropped a similar mandate, as most other cities did.
The Bay Area health officials said that although not required, masking is strongly recommended by the California Department of Public Health for most public indoor settings, and health officials say wearing higher-quality masks — N95 or KN95 or snug-fitting surgical masks — indoors is “a wise choice that will help people protect their health.”
“People are at an elevated risk of contracting COVID-19 right now,” Philip said, “and we are urging people to take personal protections against the virus.”