• Kevin Hessel

No more tiers: Most pandemic restrictions to end

With some two-thirds of Marin residents fully protected against COVID-19 and zero hospitalizations for the first time in 13 months, the county was poised to fully reopen this week as California retires most public-health restrictions on business and social activities, including masking.


On June 15, after The Ark’s press deadline, the state was to end its color-coded, county-by-county tier system and allow full capacity at all businesses, with no more physical distancing under a revised health order issued June 11.


The order comes even as the more contagious and more severe Delta variant, first found in India, takes deeper root in California and the rest of the U.S., where roughly a third of eligible residents are showing vaccine hesitancy and still have not received a single dose.


In Marin, however, hospitals on June 14 reported no patients required hospitalization — the first time that’s happened since May 3, 2020.


“The pattern couldn’t be clearer that vaccinations protect us,” said Dr. Matt Willis, Marin’s public-health officer. “We’re seeing the benefits in preventing the most serious illnesses and is another reason why we feel ready to move forward with reopening our local economy.”


Willis said that while individual counties can have stricter rules than the state, Marin will align with California’s rules, including on masking, where the state was also to adopt the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.


While masks can mostly be shed for the fully vaccinated, meaning it’s been at least two weeks since receiving the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna series or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot, there are still significant exceptions.


Masks will still be required indoors at work, after the board of Cal/OSHA, the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, on June 9 withdrew proposed revisions to its temporary standards under the coronavirus pandemic, leaving rules from November 2020 in place. The board will try again June 17, and any updated standards wouldn’t take effect until June 28.


Businesses can also set their own rules on whether customers must wear a mask indoors, including by asking on the honor system if they’re are fully vaccinated, by requiring proof of vaccination or by requiring all customers to wear masks regardless of vaccination status.


That leeway doesn’t extend to large indoor events, where venues hosting more than 5,000 people indoors must require proof of vaccination or a negative test result for admission.


For the fully vaccinated, masks will still be required on public transit, including airplanes, buses and ride-shares; in transportation hubs; indoors in K-12 and other youth settings; in health-care settings; in jails and prisons; and in homeless, emergency and cooling centers.


Unvaccinated people — in­cluding those who’ve completed their series but haven’t reached the two-week threshold — must still wear masks in indoor public settings away from home, such as in grocery stores, movie theaters or restaurants. They must also wear masks outdoors if they can’t maintain physical distance, such as in groups or large outdoor events like concerts or sports.


Based on state vaccine-series-completion data from two weeks ago, The Ark projects some 44 percent of California’s total population will be fully protected by today, June 16. That lags behind the Tiburon Peninsula, where 64 percent are projected to be fully immune, and Marin, at 67 percent.


At press time June 14, nearly 90 percent of eligible Marin residents — those 12 and older — had received at least one dose. Nearly 80 percent had completed the series, meaning roughly that figure will be fully protected heading into Fourth of July weekend festivities, President Joe Biden’s target date for the full nationwide reopening.


When factoring in those who gained immunity by contracting the virus, Marin likely would have enough community protection to achieve a level of herd immunity, if the county isn’t already there. That goal has been a moving target, with experts initially estimating 60-70 percent vaccination would be enough to make the virus difficult to spread within a population, though that estimate climbed to 80-90 percent when more-contagious variants began to emerge.


Willis says Marin’s vaccination rates, the highest in the state, have slowed the spread of COVID-19 to a trickle. The county is seeing about two new cases per day, with just 42 active cases, or those newly diagnosed in the prior 14 days — active cases in just 0.016 percent of the total population at The Ark’s press time.


While Willis warned that the Delta variant is now the dominant form spreading in Marin — representing some 50 percent of new cases — he said he believed the county’s high protection from the vaccine likely will prevent an outbreak here.


Elsewhere, the variant remains a larger concern. Nationwide, the Delta strain is being seen in about 6 percent of new cases, according the CDC, up from about 1 percent a month ago. But in other nations where the Delta variant has spread widely — such as Great Britain, which has vaccination rates similar to the U.S. but Delta represents more than 90 percent of new cases — rates are once again rising, particularly among those ages 12-20.


Even still, Marin is seeking to get the final 10 percent of eligible residents vaccinated. On June 8, it joined California in sweetening the pot by offering $25 grocery-store gift cards for the newly vaccinated at locations in San Rafael with high-risk populations.


California recently announced its $116.5 million “Vax for the Win” program, which offers $50 gift cards to the first 2 million newly vaccinated residents and automatically entered all vaccinated residents into drawings for 30 $50,000 cash prizes and 10 $15 million prizes, which were drawn June 15.


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

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