California ending COVID mask mandate and easing other rules – too soon, too slow? – The Mercury News

California ending COVID mask mandate and easing other rules – too soon, too slow? – The Mercury News

Indoor mask mandate for all to sunset after Feb. 15

By JOHN WOOLFOLK | jwoolfolk@bayareanewsgroup.com | Bay Area News Group, February 7, 2022

As COVID-19 cases subside in California, state health officials Monday announced they are ending testing requirements for visitors to nursing homes and next week will ease similar restrictions on large events and mostly ditch the statewide indoor face mask mandate.

But one group of Californians — the state’s 6 million school children — won’t get much of a break from the pandemic rules. California’s requirement that they wear masks inside classrooms and other school buildings remains in place for now, even though New Jersey said Monday it will end a similar rule in a month.

“Omicron has loosened its hold on California, vaccines for children under 5 are around the corner, and access to COVID-19 treatments is improving,” said Dr. Tomás J. Aragón, the state’s director of public heath. “With things moving in the right direction, we are making responsible modifications to COVID-19 prevention measures, while also continuing to develop a longer-term action plan for the state.”

Dr. George Rutherford, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California-San Francisco, said last week in a panel discussion that while the country has “really turned the corner” in the winter case surge, “there’s a ton of infection out there.” Rutherford said Monday however that the state’s plan is the “right move.”

“Omicron has loosened its hold on California, vaccines for children under 5 are around the corner, and access to COVID-19 treatments is improving,” said Dr. Tomás J. Aragón, the state’s director of public heath. “With things moving in the right direction, we are making responsible modifications to COVID-19 prevention measures, while also continuing to develop a longer-term action plan for the state.”

Dr. George Rutherford, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California-San Francisco, said last week in a panel discussion that while the country has “really turned the corner” in the winter case surge, “there’s a ton of infection out there.” Rutherford said Monday however that the state’s plan is the “right move.”

UCSF colleague Dr. Rita Hamad said Monday in an interview that “it will definitely be time to lift the mask mandates in schools as omicron fades.” She notes the risk of severe disease and death is much lower because of vaccines and high immunity from prior infection.

“It’s time to get kids as close to normal as possible for their language and socioemotional development,” Hamad said.

The public health department said Monday that California “is continuing to work with education, public health and community leaders to update masking requirements at schools to adapt to changing conditions and ensure the safety of kids, teachers, and staff.”

That didn’t sit well with parent advocates who have lost patience with the requirement that kids and adults continue to mask up for hours in all K-12 buildings, even as rules allow diners and bar patrons to remove face coverings while eating and drinking indoors.

“Children across California haven’t known a normal school day for almost two years,” said Megan Bacigalupi, Executive Director CA Parent Power, a group that advocates for parents in public education, and whose sons attend Oakland Unified schools.

“With vaccines, treatments and immunity from the omicron surge, the onus should now be on public health officials to prove the benefits of masks outweigh the harms,” Bacigalupi said. “Many parents believe they do not and have appealed to state leadership to make them optional when restrictions are removed for adults next week.”

While statewide rules ease, local health officials may continue to impose restrictions. Los Angeles County, which will host the Super Bowl this weekend, requires people attending large indoor and outdoor events to mask up.

In the Bay Area, Sonoma County is expected to allow restrictions on public gatherings to expire Friday. But many county health officials also have mask requirements in place, and it was unclear Monday whether those will change along with the state rule.

California previously lifted most of its statewide COVID-19 pandemic restrictions and requirements last June in a bid to reopen businesses, as vaccinations increased and new infections declined. With the exception of students in classrooms, only unvaccinated people needed to wear face masks indoors.

But when the highly transmissible COVID-19 omicron variant sent case rates soaring last fall, California reimposed the indoor mask requirement for all other public areas regardless of vaccination and extended it last month through Feb. 15.

On Monday, the state let expire a testing requirement for visiting nursing homes. On Feb. 15, the state will also drop its vaccine and negative test requirement for indoor events with 1,000 or fewer people. The state also will drop the vaccine and negative test recommendation for events of 10,000 or fewer people then.

California’s decision to lessen some restrictions in February comes as case rates decline but also remain stubbornly high, complicating the calculus of when it makes sense to ease them.

Community transmission has steadily decreased statewide since early January, and hospitalizations are either plateauing or declining in most regions of the state. Since California’s omicron surge peak last month, the state has seen case rates fall 65%.

But while that’s good news, case rates remain the highest since the start of the pandemic. The entire U.S. and every urban California county are at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s red “high” transmission level, indicating more than 100 cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days. California’s transmission level Monday was 933 per 100,000, three times higher than New Jersey, where Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday their statewide mask mandate for schools and child care settings will be lifted March 7.

In New York state, where the case rate Monday was 265 per 100,000 over the last seven days, a statewide mask mandate is set to expire Thursday.

Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist and demographer at UC-Irvine, said health officials are in a difficult bind, trying to impose rules where they can help protect public health while avoiding keeping them beyond the point where people will follow them.

“We don’t want the rules to be more strict than what people are doing in real life, because then the rules become a joke, and if you ever need to impose them again, you can’t,” Noymer said. “You’re going to still find me wearing masks at a lot of grocery stores. … The state has some really tough choices right now.”

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