Ventura County officials have credited social distancing and a local stay-at-home order with stemming the spread of the coronavirus and keeping the number of cases and deaths in the county low.
But Dr. Robert Levin, the county’s public health officer, says he will not require the wearing of face coverings, a step that neighboring counties like Los Angeles and Riverside have mandated for residents who are conducting essential business.
Levin, who has stuck to strict health measures in the fight against the pandemic, said Tuesday at a Board of Supervisors meeting that he made the decision after considering evidence that has shown masks are not entirely effective.
“With no mask order here in Ventura County, we’ve done a really good job of flattening the curve,” he said. “That’s not to say people aren’t wearing masks and electing to do that on their own, but there’s no order.”
The county reported Tuesday a total of 508 coronavirus cases, up five from the previous day’s report. So far, 356 people have recovered from the illness, 135 remain under active quarantine and 17 people have died. About 9,500 people in the county have been tested for COVID-19.
In recent weeks, Ventura County has eased its Stay Well at Home order to allow some businesses as well as county parks to reopen.
The low number of cases signals the county is flattening the curve, Executive Officer Michael Powers said at Tuesday’s meeting. Keeping the numbers down will be an important step in adhering to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s four-part plan to reopen the state, Powers said.
“We’re going to continue to just lean in with everything we have to put these steps in place so when the governor does announce his easings, we’ll be in the best position to support our community’s efforts here,” he said.
Public health director Rigoberto Vargas said the county’s “doubling rate” is around 26 days, meaning that given the current rate of spread of COVID-19 in Ventura County, it would take nearly four weeks for the current number of cases to double.
A higher doubling rate is important because it gives hospitals and first responders extra time to prepare for additional patients. In comparison, in Los Angeles County — the hardest-hit area in the state — the doubling rate is 17.7 days.
“With our good numbers, again we get asked often why not lift Ventura County’s Stay Well at Home order,” Vargas said. “We have to be very diligent about not opening too fast.”
Under Levin’s guidance, the county was quick to implement its stay-at-home directive, asking residents to limit their travel and stay six feet away from others. The county even limited what items essential businesses could sell. But as other parts of the state and the nation were beginning to explore recommendations for wearing masks, Levin held out.
Then, on April 2, he reversed his initial position against face coverings and instead encouraged residents to wear them. At the time, he said there was growing evidence the masks would decrease the possibility of spreading the virus — or contracting it — from asymptomatic people.
At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommendations that people use face masks. The city of Los Angeles on April 7 began requiring both workers and customers of essential businesses to wear masks. Los Angeles County followed suit a week later.
This week, Levin said he still supports residents who choose to wear masks, but he won’t mandate the practice. He cited studies showing masks have been ineffective against the spread of disease. He also pointed out that despite a shortage of medical-grade masks, nonmedical workers continue to use personal protective equipment like N95 masks instead of donating the PPE to medical workers.
“Based on these findings, I can’t mandate that cloth masks be worn in all public places at this time,” Levin said.
He did note, however, that the recommendation could shift.
“If the prevalence of disease increases in our county or some convincing evidence comes along, that guidance of course can change,” he said.