L.A. County to require mask indoors again amid alarming rise in COVID cases

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Los Angeles County Reinstates Indoor Mask Mandate Despite Vaccine Status

Bloomberg Quicktake: Now 17 July, 2021 - 03:11am

Haunted by Past Virus Surges, California Leans on Masks and Vaccines

The New York Times 17 July, 2021 - 03:11am

A new indoor mask requirement in Los Angeles County comes as new virus cases have nearly tripled statewide. Immunization rates, however, should keep any spike below past peaks.

LOS ANGELES — Last month, flanked by the “Transformers” robot hero Optimus Prime and a bevy of Minions from the “Despicable Me” movie franchise, Gov. Gavin Newsom triumphantly stood before the Universal Studios Hollywood globe, lifting more than a year’s worth of pandemic health restrictions and announcing California’s “grand reopening.”

“We are here today, June 15, to turn the page,” the governor said, his clean-shaven face mask-free in the Los Angeles sunshine.

On Saturday at midnight, Los Angeles County health authorities will turn back that page.

Just four weeks into California’s push for a return to normalcy, health officials in the state’s most populous county announced that face masks would again be required indoors starting this weekend, the first major county in America to restore indoor masking requirements regardless of vaccination status.

Driven by the rise of the ultra-contagious Delta variant and pockets of low vaccination, the announcement, which affects more than 10 million Californians, led a wave of heightened health warnings in a state of 40 million people. It also reflected concern nationally that vaccine defiance, disinformation and the variant have been responsible for significant increases in coronavirus cases in Arkansas, Louisiana and elsewhere.

“This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said.

Los Angeles County’s new rules came Thursday as the University of California’s 10-campus system announced that most faculty, staff and students will be barred from its campuses this fall if they show up without vaccinations. Health authorities in Sacramento, Fresno and Yolo Counties also recommended, but did not yet require, that residents return to indoor masking, a move that was followed on Friday by Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Sonoma Counties in the Bay Area.

The new local and institutional health rules also sowed confusion.

The C.D.C. as well as the state’s Department of Public Health have said fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks indoors in most situations. However, Los Angeles has been among the more cautious jurisdictions throughout its response to the pandemic, and California’s guidance gives counties the option to impose tighter restrictions locally.

Officials in Los Angeles stressed that they were acting out of an abundance of caution, in an effort to pre-empt the sort of case numbers that have rapidly increased in other parts of the country. Every state has reported an increase in the number of new virus cases in recent days.

California’s figures have nearly tripled over the past month, largely because of San Bernardino and Los Angeles, but the current rate of 3,000 new cases a day is a blip compared to the winter peak, when there were more than 44,000. California is doing slightly better than the national per capita average and far better than in hot spots around the country. In parts of Missouri, hospitals have been stretched thin by an influx of coronavirus patients.

Scientists say the some 160 million people across the country who are fully vaccinated are largely protected from the virus, including the Delta variant. But particularly in places like the South, where vaccination rates are among the lowest in the country, the risk of a fresh spike is serious, said Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert at Baylor College of Medicine.

“If you have been lucky enough to escape infection previously and you’re not vaccinated, your luck is about to run out,” Dr. Hotez said.

President Biden expressed his frustration on Friday with social media’s role in spreading disinformation about the coronavirus vaccine.

“They’re killing people,” Mr. Biden said about social media platforms like Facebook. “Look, the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated, and that — and they’re killing people.”

On Friday, the C.D.C. director noted that local authorities could adapt masking guidance to reflect the trajectory of the virus in their communities.

“If you have areas of low vaccination and high case rates, then I would say local policymakers might consider whether masking at that point would be something that would be helpful for their community,” said Dr. Walensky, warning that the number of new virus cases is likely to increase in the coming weeks, particularly in areas with low vaccine coverage.

Hours later, 10 Kansas City-area hospitals and health officials issued a joint advisory for indoor and crowded outdoor settings, recommending masks.

Fifty-one percent of Californians are fully vaccinated, well below the levels in some Northeastern states but above the national rate. Vaccines are free and available to anyone 12 or older. In Los Angeles County, where public health officials had already been recommending masks indoors, new cases have spiked more than 200 percent in the past two weeks, to more than 1,000 per day.

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, has described the Delta variant as “the greatest threat in the U.S. to our attempt to eliminate Covid-19.” More than 63,000 Californians have died of the coronavirus. Fewer than 40 deaths statewide are being announced on most recent days, down from more than 500 a day during much of January.

At the University of California, President Michael V. Drake said in a letter to chancellors that the current research, both from medical studies and the university’s own infectious-disease experts, clearly pointed to the need for a vaccine mandate for anyone who was going to be on campus.

“Vaccination is by far the most effective way to prevent severe disease and death after exposure to the virus and to reduce spread of the disease to those who are not able, or not yet eligible, to receive the vaccine,” Dr. Drake, who is also a physician, wrote.

The vaccine requirement will apply to students and employees alike, as well as participants in athletic and study-abroad programs, he said, and will be enforced even if the vaccines remain under emergency use authorization.

Students without approved vaccine exemptions will be barred from campus housing, events, facilities and classrooms, the policy noted. While there would be “limited exceptions, accommodations and deferrals,” not all classes will be offered remotely.

Hundreds of colleges and universities, including Stanford, the Claremont Colleges and the University of Southern California, have required vaccines for the fall, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. But the University of California mandate is the most sweeping so far by a public university.

In liberal Los Angeles, the return of indoor masking did not require a hard sell. The sidewalks of the Los Feliz neighborhood northwest of downtown were filled on Friday with mask-wearing Angelenos working behind counters, sitting around outdoor breakfast tables and standing in morning coffee lines.

Those without masks over their noses and mouths tended to have masks around their necks or dangling from their wrists. Some said they were surprised that Los Angeles County had not re-mandated face coverings sooner.

“What’s the virus going to do?” joked Marc Rosales, 26, a cashier at a Hillhurst Avenue pet store. “Wait until Saturday?”

“I’m pretty sure people in the city will respond positively about it,” agreed Simone Bonelli, 39, the part-owner of a Brazilian restaurant. He said some of his kitchen staff were annoyed at returning to masks, but a few are unvaccinated. “My main hope,” he said, “is that it’s not going to hurt the inside business, obviously.”

Californians statewide may be less compliant should mandates be restored more broadly, a worry increasingly addressed in recent days by Mr. Newsom, who is facing a recall election in less than two months.

“I cannot impress upon you more the power of getting vaccinated,” the governor told an audience this week in the working-class Los Angeles-area community of Bell Gardens. “If we want to extinguish this pandemic, this disease, we’ve got to get vaccinated. Period. Full stop.”

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