Coronavirus

County Health Officials Surprised But Supportive of CDC’s Mask Guidance

Still unclear if state will also update its mask policies

FILE PHOTO -- Crowds swarm Pacific Avenue on a busy Memorial Day weekend afternoon in 2020. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

Surprised that federal health officials would this quickly recommend fully vaccinated people can ditch their masks, Santa Cruz County health officials at a Thursday press conference said unvaccinated county residents will have to eventually walk a “tightrope” when deciding when it is safe to leave their mask at home.

Though the masking mandate in California, and by extension in Santa Cruz County, has not changed as of Friday afternoon, local health officials worried that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Thursday morning recommendation that fully vaccinated people can now go maskless in most settings—both indoors and outdoors—could cause some confusion.

But they said the CDC’s decision does “make sense” given the record-low number of people that have recently been diagnosed with Covid-19 and the state’s ongoing progress in getting people vaccinated. In Santa Cruz County, officials announced Thursday, half of all residents above the age of 12 have received both shots and roughly 70% have received at least one. In addition, active Covid-19 cases dipped below 100 for the first time in more than a year as of Thursday.

“We’re on this path, we’ve been on this path,” County Deputy Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci said. “I think vaccination provides extreme protection, and we’re doing very well in the state of California.”

Those who have not yet been vaccinated or are living with someone who has not received the shot, County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel warned, should continue to proceed with caution when masking orders are updated.

The vaccines being used in the U.S. have shown strong efficacy in keeping people who contract Covid-19 out of the hospital, but there have been rare instances in which a person who is vaccinated has tested positive for the disease—those so-called ‘breakthrough’ cases, health officials say, were expected.

Of course, those who have not yet received the inoculation are still at risk of serious illness. As an example, Newel said, the county went several days without a person being admitted to a local hospital with Covid-19, but that streak was broken Wednesday.

That person was unvaccinated and was in close contact with other people who had tested positive for Covid-19 and were also unvaccinated, Newel said.

Despite the county’s strong vaccination efforts, those who are unvaccinated are, for now, still “at almost the same level of risk that you’ve been all along,” Ghilarducci said.

“We’ve given many reasons why you should get vaccinated, but this is one where it’s super important,” he added. “Now you’re going to be amongst crowds that aren’t going to be wearing masks.”

Two weeks after receiving their second dose—or only dose with the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine—people can “resume activities without wearing a mask or staying six feet apart,” the CDC recommends. The agency’s suggestion, however, does not supplant the rules put in place by states, local governments or local businesses and workplaces. 

It’s not clear if the state will update its masking policies before the June 15 date identified by Gov. Gavin Newsom as California’s official reopening. Though questions remain about what “reopening” will mean, Newel said that county health officials around the state have been told that the four-tiered, color-coded “Blueprint for a Safer Economy” system will be gone, and that a “Beyond the Blueprint” system will take its place.

Then, Newel said, guidance for schools and workplaces will largely remain in place, and there will be various capacity limitations on large gatherings such as conferences.

Newel predicted the county will move to the yellow tier—the least-restrictive of the four—next Wednesday thanks to continuous drops in case and positivity rates. Santa Cruz County’s case rate this week was 1.5 cases per 100,000 residents, and its positivity rate dropped to 0.5%—which, according to state data, is among the lowest in California. 

County health officials, however, said vaccination rates have slowed significantly from a 3,200-dose per day peak in April to about 1,000 doses fewer this month. In response, they said they have started to shift from mass vaccination clinics to targeted “pop-ups” in which they take the vaccine into communities that have been traditionally tough to reach.

That included a pop-up site at the Watsonville Flea Market on Sunday. Chief of Public Health Jen Herrera said that there were several attendees of the beloved South County “pulga” that were interested in the vaccine, but that some were not ready to receive the shot that day.

“We’re hoping that the continued presence over a few weeks will lead to some success,” she said.

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