California announced two major changes to its COVID-19 mask policy on Monday: Masks will no longer be required indoors at K-12 schools or childcare settings beginning March 12 and unvaccinated residents will no longer be required to wear a mask in indoor public settings effective Tuesday.
While those mandates are being removed, the state continues to strongly recommend that everyone wear masks indoors.
Local health officials and school districts will have the option of maintaining indoor mask mandates if they choose and masks will still be required in healthcare and longterm-care settings, jails and homeless shelters, and on public transit.
Yolo County, meanwhile, will align with state masking policy, but the county’s health officer strongly recommends that everybody continue to wear a mask indoors.
“Yolo County continues to see a decrease in both cases and hospitalizations since the Omicron peak on Jan. 9,” said Dr. Aimee Sisson. “I continue to strongly recommend that everybody wear a mask indoors because the case rate in Yolo County remains high. Choose the best mask in terms of fit and filtration that you can consistently wear. An N95, KN95, or KF94 mask is the most protective mask available.”
Sisson’s message on Monday noted that people have different levels of comfort with recent masking changes based on personal circumstances.
“As we move away from requirements to recommendations, respect for an individual’s masking choices is paramount. This respectful
approach is supported by state guidelines, which indicate, ‘no person can be prevented from wearing a mask as a condition of participation in an activity or entry into a business.’”
In discussing the changes Monday, Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s secretary of health and human services, outlined the progress the state has seen with COVID-19, including a drop in the case rate from 300 cases per 100,000 residents at the height of the Omicron surge to below 20 on Monday.
Both hospitalizations and, specifically, pediatric hospitalizations, have dropped by half from two weeks ago, he added.
Masks at schools
Earlier this month, Ghaly had said a decision on K-12 masking would be announced Feb. 28 after the state reviewed data related to case rates, hospitalizations, vaccination rates and more.
And while case rates and hospitalizations have continued to decline since then, vaccination rates for children ages 5 to 11 have not increased and remain lower than for any other age group in California.
In Yolo County, just 38 percent of children in that age group are fully vaccinated, where nearly every school has student vaccination rates above 50 percent.
But given low rates for children overall, “we have our work cut out for us,” said Ghaly.
Meanwhile, the news about lifting the K-12 school mask mandate followed publication of a recent study showing the Pfizer vaccine — the only one authorized for children ages 5 to 11 — is far less effective at preventing infection in younger children than in older adolescents and adults.
The shot is effective at preventing severe illness, the study found, but offers significantly less protection against infection within a month of full immunization.
The Pfizer dose given to children ages 5 to 11 is about one-third the dose given to those ages 12 and up. See the study at bit.ly/3htAAsH
Speaking about the study on Monday, Ghaly said, “that data is … not what any of us want to see.”
“The good news,” he said, “is we’re making this decision (about lifting the mask mandate in K-12 schools) with the knowledge that we have more to do on vaccinating 5- to 11-year-olds, that we want to get them more vaccinated as a group.”
He noted that the study showed vaccine effectiveness against severe disease is still quite good and that “lower transmission rates in most of the state is really what’s guiding where we are today.
“And if we see those trends change materially… we would continue to assess that information and make a decision if that requires us to use a tool that we aren’t currently using to make sure that environments like schools and other places are safe.
“Looking at the data and the trends, we really do anticipate that we’ll continue to see reductions in all of the metrics,” he said.
As for lifting the mandatory mask mandate for the unvaccinated in indoor public settings, Ghaly said the decision is based in part on “the reality that tracking vaccination status among the masked and unmasked is really operationally difficult in certain settings.”