Could rising COVID-19 case rates prompt mask mandate?
So far, state shows no inclination to re-institute indoor masking mandate
Local coronavirus-related hospitalizations have continued to rise in San Diego County, though not quite quickly enough to push the region into the federal government’s highest tier of COVID-19 activity.
Such a move would have been a significant development because the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal indoor masking if the number of recent hospital admissions reaches 10 or more per 100,000 residents. As of Thursday evening, San Diego’s County’s rate stood at 8.9 per 100,000.
While San Francisco and Sacramento counties have already arrived at the highest level — color coded orange — with rates of 10.2 and 15.4 respectively, Southern California’s most populous areas are all still floating just below the threshold. Los Angeles and Orange counties are listed at 9.7 per 100,000, and Riverside County sits slightly below San Diego at 7.2.
Thus far, the California Department of Public Health has not moved to take the CDC’s recommendation and re-institute indoor masking statewide, but local health departments seemed to be keenly interested in seeing what might happen if those currently teetering on the edge were to turn from yellow to the most severe orange level on the federal agency’s color-coded threat map.
According to the county health department’s weekly update, total confirmed and suspected hospitalizations reported in all of San Diego County’s non-military hospitals hit 361 Wednesday, 26 more than were collectively hospitalized one week ago. New cases reported, however, appeared to be falling a bit, decreasing 281 in a week’s time to 1,767 Wednesday.
Those numbers, experts caution, are not the whole picture. They include only “PCR” results performed by health care providers and testing centers but generally exclude positives from home testing kits, which are not reported to county health departments.
Wastewater sampling, which can detect tiny fragments of coronavirus genetic code, has recently been seen as a better way of gauging the true prevalence of coronavirus in the community.
The most recent wastewater data posted by SEARCH, a collaborative analysis group led by scientists at UC San Diego and Scripps Research, show that the virus’s presence declined in late June, falling from about 7 million copies of the coronavirus on June 12 to 6 million on June 29. Levels have remained far below the all-time peak of 46.5 million on January 10.
Despite producing significantly more infections than previous waves, Omicron proved to be far less likely to cause hospitalization and death than its predecessors. Currently, BA.4 and BA.5, the original Omicron’s descendants, make up a significant proportion of new cases, mirroring trends seen nationwide.
There is evidence, noted Dr. Seema Shah, medical director of the county health department’s epidemiology and immunization branch, that 4 and 5 have a more significant ability to put infected people in hospitals. That has seemed to be the case, she noted, in Portugal, a country with a similarly vaccinated population that saw these two subvariants arrive earlier than they have in the United States. Given that 4 and 5 really began to hold sway in mid-to-late January, she said, there is no reason to expect hospitalizations to slow soon. It often takes weeks, after all, for infected people to get sick enough to need significant medical attention.
“The forecasting is telling us that there is a very good chance that this is going to continue, and that we haven’t seen a peak in hospitalizations yet,” she said.
While the state has not yet broached the possibility of re-instituting its previous indoor masking requirements, some are unequivocal about face coverings’ abilities to slow the spread of even the highly infectious 4 and 5 subvariants that have spread so quickly.
Meinrat O. Andreae, a respected chemist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography whose research focuses on how aerosols — fine particles suspended in air — affect climate, has studied masking and coronavirus transmission, publishing an extensive paper on the subject in May, 2021, with an international team of experts.
Despite the virus’s increased abilities to infect people, the expert said there would still be a significant benefit to masking.
“The bottom line is: wearing a mask, even if no one else is, cuts your infection risk in half if it’s a surgical mask and drops it by 90 percent or better in the case of a well-fitting N95,” Andreae said in an email Thursday. “To me, that is well worth the minor inconvenience of putting on a mask, no matter what everyone else is doing.”
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