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California school mask mandate will remain in place through Feb. 28

A woman uses a forehead thermometer to screen students
Yesenia Torres, right, screens students coming to Elysian Heights Elementary Arts Magnet on Jan. 14 in Los Angeles.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

California will keep its indoor mask mandate for K-12 schools in place at least through the end of the month, the state’s top health official said Monday, even as it moves this week to relax face covering rules in other settings.

While other states have announced plans to relax their requirements in the near future, California will reassess conditions Feb. 28 to see whether the promising trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic continues, said Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s health and human services secretary.

By that date, “we anticipate being able to share what the next period of time will look like and, with some specificity, give a date when the masking requirement will move to a recommendation,” he told reporters Monday.

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Ghaly said the decision won’t hinge on any one particular metric or threshold but, rather, be based on an overall picture — including the trend lines for coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, vaccination rates, as well as how the pandemic is playing out elsewhere in the nation and across the globe.

The next step for schools is under discussion as indoor masking set to ease on Feb. 15 in many settings in California.

But, should current trends persist, Ghaly expressed optimism that the state will be in position to alter its masking rules in two weeks.

“Masking requirements were never put in place to be there forever,” he said. “It’s not a question of if; it’s a question of when.”

When asked about how parents might react to the delay, Ghaly said he understands if there’s frustration.

“Parents should not hear that we aren’t making a move. We are taking a little bit more time to consider the information, work with our partners across the state to make sure when the move is made, that we are doing it successfully with communities empowered to continue to be safe,” he said.

Local districts, he added, will also have the choice of continuing to mandate masks even after the state no longer requires them.

E. Toby Boyd, president of the California Teachers Assn., said in a statement that “we support the administration’s decision to pause and gather more information to make a science-based decision on school masking that responds to this moment in the pandemic and helps the state transition with an eye on equity.”

“We will continue to assess state and local conditions over the next two weeks, just as local school districts and communities assess their own needs,” Boyd said. “CTA supports local decisions that prioritize the safety of our communities.”

A CDC report found vaccine booster protection waned but remains strong amid the Omicron wave.

While state officials have been optimistic about the trajectory of the pandemic, the consequences of the Omicron variant’s rampage are still reverberating throughout California.

Daily numbers of infections and coronavirus-positive hospitalizations, though down significantly in recent weeks, remain well above pre-wave levels.

Over the last week, an average of 212 Californians have died of COVID-19 per day — the highest rate the state has seen since last winter’s horrific surge, which struck before vaccines were widely available.

Officials have already said they will lift California’s 2-month-old universal indoor mask mandate on Wednesday. But, Ghaly noted, California still strongly recommends indoor masking for everyone, as transmission remains elevated throughout the state.

As for why a different timeline is in play for schools than other indoor spaces, such as businesses, Ghaly said that “schools are an important area to protect and support” and that the state’s priority is ensuring in-person instruction can take place as safely as possible.

“We know that in certain settings, indoor settings, that masking has been a valuable tool to help support not just schools but other entities to keep functioning when transmission is high,” he said.

Come Wednesday, unvaccinated residents will still be required to wear face coverings indoors, and everyone will need to mask up in certain settings, such as in nursing homes or while aboard public transit.

While virtually all counties will follow the state’s lead, two of the biggest — Los Angeles and Santa Clara — have said they will maintain their indoor requirements until coronavirus transmission declines further.

Health officials in those counties say the requirements probably will last only a few more weeks or so.

“Being cautious still makes sense, and doing everything we can to drive down the high rates of transmission remains an appropriate goal for us to continue to embrace as a community,” said L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.

As hospitalizations of COVID patients fall, Los Angeles County is on track to potentially relax some outdoor masking rules next week.

However, L.A. County could relax some outdoor masking rules this week, as the number of coronavirus-positive patients hospitalized throughout the region has dropped well below a county-set threshold of 2,500.

The county is on track as soon as Wednesday to lift face covering requirements at outdoor “mega events” — including those at venues such as SoFi Stadium, the Hollywood Bowl, Dodger Stadium and Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum — and outdoor spaces at K-12 schools and child-care settings. On Wednesday, thousands of fans are expected to gather in the Exposition Park area for the Rams’ Super Bowl parade.

Lifting the mask requirement for indoor settings, however, is a tougher hill to climb.

By the thousands, Americans have been seeking religious exemptions in order to circumvent COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

One trigger would be for L.A. County to record two straight weeks of “moderate” coronavirus transmission as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To meet that threshold, officials say L.A. County’s daily tally of new cases would need to fall below 730. Though its caseload has nosedived since the height of the Omicron surge, L.A. County is still averaging nearly 6,300 new coronavirus cases per day, according to data compiled by The Times.

Still, should recent trends persist, Ferrer said, the rate would probably drop enough within a month or so.

“Of course, we do need to continue the common-sense measures that slow COVID-19 transmission until we reach this more acceptable level of risk for the county,” she said during a briefing Thursday.

An FDA panel postpones a meeting on Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children under 5 after the drugmaker said it has new data to add to its application.

L.A. County also would lift its indoor mask mandate once COVID-19 vaccines have been available for children ages 6 months to 4 years for eight weeks. However, that timeline is even murkier.

An advisory panel to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had been planning to consider approving the vaccine for the youngest children this week, but that review has been postponed as federal regulators await more data.


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