Rise in Marin cases again pushes back further reopenings
With newly expanded authorization for use of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine, Marin officials say they’re prepared to vaccinate more than half of the county’s 12- to 15-year-olds. The announcement came as another uptick in new cases countywide meant Marin once again missed its move to the less-restrictive yellow pandemic reopening tier, delaying a further relaxation of the rules for businesses and social activities until at least May 18.
In his weekly report to the Board of Supervisors on May 4, Public Health Officer Dr. Matt Willis 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. He 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.
“In addition, the B.1.1.7 (UK) variant of the coronavirus is showing up more often in the Bay Area, and it is more susceptible to spreading than the original strain of COVID-19,” health officials said in a May 4 press release.
For residents not targeted for early vaccination — groups vulnerable for their age, occupation, congregate-living status or underlying health conditions — vaccine eligibility began April 15. However, it takes five to six weeks for those who receive the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to build full immunity, meaning those first members of the general public will start becoming fully immune only next week.
At The Ark’s press deadline May 10, more than 86 percent of Marin residents 16 and older had received at least one dose of vaccine, the highest vaccination rate in the state, and more than 71 percent had completed the series. But just 51 percent of residents are fully immunized, or at least two weeks past their final dose, meaning nearly half of Marin residents are still vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.
Of the 324 new cases diagnosed in the 30 days ending May 4, 87 percent were among people who were fully unvaccinated, Marin health officials said.
“From the start of the pandemic, measures like wearing masks and maintaining distance have been critical to both personal and community health,” Willis said. “We need to keep that up while we build immunity through vaccination.”
Willis has repeatedly warned that “the way to earn that (yellow reopening) status will be for people to cover their faces, not to travel, not gather together indoors.”
“It’s inconsistent if people think they can engage in those behaviors and also hope to achieve the yellow tier,” he said in mid March.
Two months later, that warning continues to play out.
A move from the orange tier to the least-restrictive fourth, yellow tier under California’s color-coded four-tier blueprint to reopening the economy would have allowed for Marin bars to reopen indoors for the first time in more than a year and for capacity restrictions to be reduced or even eliminated across businesses and other activities.
But because a county must qualify for the next tier for two consecutive weeks to be assigned to it, Marin must now start over.
The California Department of Public Health’s assessment of prior-week county-by-county metrics takes place Mondays, with formal tier assignments announced Tuesday afternoons. After qualifying for the yellow tier on April 12, Marin’s new-case rates grew to orange-tier levels by April 19, with Willis pointing to new cases from nonessential spring-break travel. The county again earned its first week of credit toward the yellow tier on April 26, when its seven-day adjusted new-case rate was 1.5 per 100,000 residents, where fewer than 2 per 100,000 qualifies. But for the May 3 assessment, seven-day-average cases rose to 2.5 per 100,000 residents, squarely back in the orange tier.
This week’s assessment data and tier assignment were not available at The Ark’s press time.
Vaccine for younger teens
More residents can now be offered protection again the coronavirus, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on May 10 grated emergency authorization for use of Pfizer’s two-dose vaccine in teens ages 12-15; Pfizer is the only manufacturer with U.S. authorization for use in teens 16-17; the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are authorized only for those 18 and older.
Marin has some 14,000 kids ages 12-15, and Willis said the goal is to vaccinate 8,000 of them in the first week.
While younger children typically experience only mild symptoms when infected, Willis noted expanded use of the vaccine can ensure entire middle and high schools are protected, which would be “critical to restoring normalcy in schools” and would contribute to communitywide immunity by stopping potential chains of transmission.
Willis said some 77 percent of Marin teens ages 16-18 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, with no reported adverse effects.
Pfizer’s vaccine trial for kids 12-15 included 2,260 kids, with 100 percent efficacy: There were no reported cases of COVID-19 in the 1,131 teens who were vaccinated and 18 cases in the placebo group.
Trials for children 6 months to 11 years are still underway.
Face coverings outdoors
California’s Department of Public Health on May 3 issued updated outdoor face-covering guidance, reflecting advice issued by the CDC a week prior, primarily noting that “for fully vaccinated persons, face coverings are not required outdoors except when attending crowded outdoor events, such as live performances, parades, fairs, festivals, sports events or other similar settings.”
The new rules apply only to the fully vaccinated, or people who are at least two weeks beyond completing their full vaccine series.
California’s rules also clarify a hole in the CDC guidance, noting that face coverings are still required outdoors for unvaccinated people “any time physical distancing cannot be maintained” — meaning masks are still required when casually passing within 6 feet of someone else outdoors on a street or trail, for example.
The CDC guidance had said unvaccinated people could go maskless outdoors when alone or with a member of their household, which was already allowed in California and Marin, then jumped to rules for small outdoor social gatherings: Unvaccinated people may go maskless as long as everyone else they are with are vaccinated, but they must remained masked when with other unvaccinated people. That left room for interpretation on the rules for casual outdoor encounters.
Marin County has said it will update its own public-health order to reflect the California guidelines, but at The Ark’s press deadline, that order had not yet changed.
Reach Executive Editor Kevin Hessel at 415-435-2652, on Facebook at fb.me/thearknewspaper.