• Kevin Hessel

Mask rules stay for now as Marin's active COVID-19 cases drop under 100, vaccination expands

Though the total number of active COVID-19 cases countywide has dropped below 100, more than half of all residents are fully immunized and vaccinations have been expanded to kids 12-15, everyone must keep wearing masks indoors and Marin will once again miss a chance to enter the least-restrictive yellow pandemic tier to further reopen the local economy.


In the California Department of Public Health’s May 10 assessment of prior-week metrics, Marin’s seven-day-average daily new-case rate grew to 3 per 100,000 residents, up from 2.5 a week earlier, when fewer than 2 new cases per 100,000 is required to qualify for the yellow tier.


That means Marin will remain in orange tier-3 status for moderate spread of the virus until at least May 25, as a county must qualify for the next tier for two consecutive weeks before it may advance; this week’s assessment was not available at The Ark’s press deadline May 17, but the county would have to earn its first week of credit this week to advance next week. Moving to the yellow tier would allow bars to reopen indoors for the first time and for many businesses to increase indoor capacity.


Marin public-health officials have pointed at younger white residents as the culprit for Marin’s rising new cases of COVID-19, alluding to overconfident behavioral shifts tied to widespread vaccination. Public Health Officer Dr. Matt Willis said the new cases were largely among that demographic and connected to nonessential travel including day trips, as well as small social gatherings and hosting visitors indoors.


Most healthy people between 16 and 49 only qualified for the vaccine on April 15, meaning even the very first to get the shots won’t develop full immunity until later this month. People aren’t considered fully vaccinated until two weeks after completing the vaccine series, which is about five to six weeks after the first of the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.


Meanwhile, everyone — regardless of vaccination status — must continue wearing face coverings in indoor spaces away from the home through June 15, despite a surprise announcement from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that fully vaccinated people generally don’t have to wear coverings or physically distance indoors.


The CDC’s May 13 announcement was the second new guideline issued in as many weeks, earlier saying that fully vaccinated people — those who completed their vaccine series at least two weeks ago — no longer have to wear masks outdoors except in large crowds, “such as live performances, parades, fairs, festivals, sports events or other similar settings.” Unvaccinated people may continue to go maskless outdoors when alone or with members of their household, but they must cover their faces any time they can’t physically distance from others.


California adopted the CDC’s new outdoor-masking rules May 3, and Marin followed shortly thereafter.


This time, California is delaying adoption for the indoor rules, meaning Marin’s public-health order also remains in effect, as local laws must be at least as strict as the state’s.


Instead, California announced May 17 that it won’t lift its masking rules until June 15, when state officials plan to eliminate the four-tier, color-coded blueprint for reopening the economy and allow all business and social activity to return to normal. According to Gov. Gavin Newsom, masking mandates would have remained only in “massively large (indoor) settings where people from around the world are convening and people are mixing in real dense spaces.”


After the CDC’s indoor-masking announcement, Newsom had said “there’s a whole lot of complexities we have to work through,” including at schools and at businesses, where separate indoor-masking rules for the vaccinated and unvaccinated raise questions about how to determine who is who under what essentially would have become an honor system. Businesses now able to point to state and local laws in requiring masks for everyone would have had to develop enforcement policies on an individual basis.


Costco and Trader Joe’s, for instance, immediately announced nationwide policies that fully vaccinated shoppers could go maskless — as long as local rules also allowed — but that unvaccinated shoppers would be on the honor system. The announcements drew criticism nationwide from individuals and businesses owners who suspected people who didn’t want to wear masks or be vaccinated would be the first to remove them.


In Marin, the risk of a broad new outbreak under a masking honor system would likely be low, as the county has one of the highest vaccination rates in the state. Nationwide, just 37 percent of people have completed their vaccine series, compared with about 49 percent of Californians. In Marin, about 74 percent of residents have completed the series, with about 54 percent fully vaccinated, or two weeks past completion.


That’s expected to grow now that kids 12-15, as of May 13, can also receive the two-dose Pfizer vaccine, the only vaccine authorized for youth under 18. The 12-15 age group represents about 14,000 Marin residents, and health officials had hoped to reach roughly 8,000 of them by May 20.


“Protecting our young people is a critical step in putting this pandemic behind us,” said MarinHealth Chief Medical Officer Dr. Karin Shavelson, who said that having middle and high schools fully protected with vaccinated students will be a “game changer” in returning to normalcy.


Further, the broader protection has led to fewer active cases, with just 76 Marin residents diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past 14 days. To start the year, Marin was seeing that number of new cases nearly every day — with a peak 174 new cases on Jan. 6. Marin’s now averaging fewer than seven new cases per day, though officials warn that testing itself is down from more than 2,000 per day in January to about 800 per day today.


Reach Executive Editor Kevin Hessel at 415-435-2652.

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