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With coronavirus surge worsening, California urges wearing masks indoors

Visitors to the Grand Central Market in Los Angeles on July 27 are both masked and unmasked.
Visitors to the Grand Central Market in Los Angeles on Tuesday are both masked and unmasked. With coronavirus infections on the rise, officials are urging even fully vaccinated Californians to wear masks in indoor public settings.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Health officials are urging fully vaccinated Californians to resume wearing masks in indoor public settings amid the latest sustained and significant COVID-19 surge.

“The Delta variant has caused a sharp increase in hospitalizations and case rates across the state. We are recommending masking in indoor public places to slow the spread while we continue efforts to get more Californians vaccinated,” Dr. Tomás Aragón, director of the California Department of Public Health and state public health officer, said in a statement Wednesday.

The new recommendation appears to be more expansive than the latest guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That agency advised Tuesday that residents mask up indoors while in public in areas where community transmission is considered “substantial” or “high,” the two worst classifications on the agency’s four-tier scale.

Most of California fell into one of those categories as of Wednesday morning, including the entire southern third of the state. And more than 90% of California’s population lives in areas currently under one of those designations, according to the state Department of Public Health.

However, the state now “recommends universal masking in indoor public settings,” according to a statement.

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“This adds an extra precautionary measure for all to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, especially in communities currently seeing the highest transmission rates,” the guidance states.

The latest mask recommendation is just one of the new measures California officials have put into action to combat a sustained increase in coronavirus infections and COVID-19 hospitalizations.

A growing number of government agencies are requiring employees to provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19 or undergo regular testing.

Though the numbers of infections and of those who are ill enough to be hospitalized remain well below the levels of previous surges, the extent of the latest increases is ringing alarm bells across the state.

“Our projections are sobering,” Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters earlier this week. “Our projections are, over the course of the next number of weeks, we’ll show a significant increase in hospitalizations if we continue down this path.”

Los Angeles County on Wednesday sent an alert to residents saying COVID-19 cases are rising rapidly and urging people to get vaccinated.

Over the last week, California has reported an average of nearly 7,400 new coronavirus cases a day — roughly eight times the rate from four weeks ago, according to data compiled by The Times.

On Monday, 3,200 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized statewide, with 720 of them in intensive care.

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Both those figures have doubled in the last two weeks.

L.A. will require city employees to provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing for the virus.

More aggressive actions

Newsom and other state officials unveiled the latest prong of their COVID-19 battle plan earlier this week.

Starting next month, California will require all state employees — as well as workers in public and private healthcare facilities and congregate settings such as jails, homeless shelters and senior living homes — to show proof they’ve been vaccinated.

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Those who are unvaccinated, or decline to provide the requested documentation, will be subject to regular testing and have to wear masks while working indoors.

State health officials are reviewing federal guidance that residents who are vaccinated should resume wearing masks in indoor public settings.

Los Angeles County already requires masks in public indoor spaces, and face coverings also will be required in such spaces in Yolo County starting Friday, officials said this week.

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Many other California counties have issued recommendations, though not mandates, for their residents to do likewise.

Yolo County on Tuesday ordered that everyone must wear a mask or face covering in indoor public spaces, regardless of vaccination status, beginning Friday.

The COVID-19 surge is continuing in Los Angeles County, with more than 2,000 new cases reported Tuesday.

“Case rates are increasing across all adult age groups, with the highest case rate increases occurring in adults between the ages of 18 and 29 years old with a ninefold increase, from 40 to 350 cases per 100,000 over the course of the past month. And case rates have increased 7.5-fold among 30- to 49-year-olds, from 33 to 247 cases per 100,000,” the county said in a statement.

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The CDC recommends that even vaccinated people wear masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where the coronavirus is surging.

Looking ahead

Despite the recent rise, California is nowhere near the peaks recorded during the fall and winter surge, when the state was reporting an average of more than 40,000 daily cases, and nearly 22,000 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized on some days.

COVID-19 deaths also have remained relatively low — at about 25 per day, on average.

Fatalities are the ultimate lagging indicator of coronavirus spread, and it sometimes takes weeks for increases in transmission to trigger a rise in deaths. Some officials, though, are optimistic that the state could avoid a severe spike in deaths, given how many Californians have already been vaccinated.

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Officials and experts say there’s a wealth of data demonstrating how powerful the available COVID-19 vaccines are at preventing infection — and particularly at staving off serious illness.

According to the California Health and Human Services Agency, the latest coronavirus case rate among unvaccinated residents is thought to be above 14 per 100,000 people — roughly seven times the rate for those who are fully vaccinated.

And more than 97% of people now hospitalized for COVID-19 nationally have not been vaccinated, according to CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

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“People who are not vaccinated are driving up cases and hospitalizations in California, and we urge everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated now so we can keep our kids in school and businesses open,” state health officials wrote in their statement to The Times.

But even with California’s relatively robust vaccine coverage — nearly 61% of all residents have received at least one dose to date, and 53% are fully vaccinated, Times’ data show — millions of people have either not yet rolled up their sleeves, or are not yet eligible to do so.

Those uninoculated individuals remain at particular risk of infection, experts say, especially given the rapid spread of the highly infectious Delta variant of the coronavirus.

“Estimates are that this is the most infectious respiratory virus we’ve seen in a long time, and it’s certainly the most infectious variant we’ve seen,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Tuesday.


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