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Why Are Masks Coming Back in California? It’s Not Just the Delta Variant.

PUBLISHED JUL 21, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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California's largest county has reinstated mask requirements and others may soon follow.

California's largest county has reinstated mask requirements and others may soon follow. / Wikimedia Commons   CC BY-SA License

Just when you thought it was safe to take off your mask — COVID cases are rising, with unvaccinated people almost totally responsible for the increase. California ranks 19th in the United States with only 51.8 percent fully vaccinated, as of July 21. Though the non-vaccinated have supposedly been required to keep masks on, an alarming spike in cases over the past month would appear to indicate that not all of them have been playing along. And that means both vaccinated and unvaccinated people may soon be required to mask up all over again. In the state’s largest county, they already are.

On June 15, Governor Gavin Newsom lifted all statewide COVID restrictions, including mask-wearing requirements for people who had already received a full dose of one of the three vaccinations available. Unfortunately, it’s been all downhill from there. Coronavirus infections have risen steadily, with state health officials reporting 7,600 new cases on Monday, July 19—the first time that number topped 7,000 since February, according to a report by Kellie Hwang of the San Francisco Chronicle. 

As a result, masks are coming back. Los Angeles County on July 18 reinstituted its mask mandate for indoor areas, such as grocery stores and other businesses. The next day, that county recorded 1,635 new cases, topping 1,000 for the 10th straight day. Los Angeles County also saw four deaths from COVID on July 19, bringing the county’s total to 24,583 since the pandemic began. That’s roughly one of every 400 county residents who have died from COVID since the pandemic began early last year.

The state’s most populous county is now being hit with about 10,000 new cases per week, the highest rate since March, according to a Los Angeles Times report. The rate of 101 new cases for every 100,000 residents was up from just 12 per 100,000 only one month earlier, the Times reported.

There are two main factors behind the increase. First, the “delta variant,” a fast-spreading mutated form of the original novel coronavirus that causes the COVID disease, as of July 16, was detected in 43 percent of all new COVID cases, the Chronicle’s Julie Johnson reported. 

Because it spreads so quickly, “Delta will certainly accelerate the pandemic,” according to Yale University epidemiologist F. Perry Wilson, who explained that in an “unmitigated environment” — that is, one without masking or any other serious restrictions, an environment that has existed in California since June 15 — the original COVID coronavirus would be expected to infect 2.5 new people for every one it infects. 

The Delta variant infects between 3.5 and four new people for every person who contracts it. The combination of dropping mask requirements and the delta variant equals a supercharged pandemic. At least among unvaccinated people. 

And that leads to the other, and most important reason why California cases are going up — people who either have not been vaccinated, or will not. 

Mask Up to Protect Our Unvaccinated Friends

In California, just under 52 percent of the eligible population has been fully vaccinated, according to New York Times data, and 63 percent have received at least one dose of the vaccine. So why are the mask mandates and recommendations rearing their heads once again with no distinctions between the vaccinated and unvaccinated?

The simplest reason is that the “honor system” that took effect when Newsom lifted restrictions on June 15 just wasn’t working. Under that system, unvaccinated people were expected to mask up in grocery stores, gyms, and any other public space, while people who’d received the vaccine were free to go maskless if they chose to do so.

But the state had no mechanism for distinguishing between vaccinated and non-vaccinated individuals. People were just being trusted to do the right thing. And too many of them didn’t do it, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis.

Requiring everyone to wear masks indoors inconveniences vaccinated people, but protects the unvaccinated, slowing spread of the pandemic among them. At least, that’s what health officials hope.

“We’re not where we need to be for the millions at risk of infection here in Los Angeles County,” health officer Muntu Davus told the Times.  “Waiting to do something will be too late given what we’re seeing now.”

While no county outside of Los Angeles has yet to put an actual mask mandate back in place, at least 14 additional counties out of the 58 in the state, have issued some level of new, non-mandatory mask recommendation. Sacramento, Santa Clara and Monterey are among those that now once again recommend that residents wear masks in indoor spaces, whether they are vaccinated or not.

The Los Angeles mandate, and other masking recommendations in counties across the state, have caused some degree of confusion. The national Centers for Disease Control still says that vaccinated people may “resume activities that you did prior to the pandemic” without wearing a mask or maintaining the previously recommended six feet of “social distancing.” 

Ample Proof that Vaccines Work

Being vaccinated doesn’t create invulnerability to the coronavirus, but it does build an impressive wall of protection. In Los Angeles County, 99 percent of the new cases recorded each day, on average, are unvaccinated people. The county’s public hospital system had yet to admit a single fully vaccinated person, County Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly told the Board of Supervisors last week, the Los Angeles Times reported. 

Nationally, according to the CDC, of the nearly 160 million people who have been fully vaccinated, fewer than 5,500 have reported so-called “breakthrough” infections that have required hospitalization. That’s just over three one-thousandths of one percent. 

And of the hospitalizations, about 1,100 were found to be asymptomatic, and in the hospital for a condition that was not, in fact, COVID. 

On the other hand, for non-vaccinated people, the pandemic never ended. In California, according to a statistical study by the Washington Post,  non-vaccinated residents are getting COVID at the same rate as the whole population was on February 17.

Nationwide, levels among the unvaccinated are back to where they were on April 23, according to the Post study.

The disparity has led top health officials, including CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky to describe the current COVID situation in the United States as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” Which it always was. The difference in 2021 compared to 2020 is that highly effective vaccines are now widely available, for free. But some people, for reasons of their own, choose not to get one.

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