It's a fact! San Mateo County joins the announcement just this Monday by the governor of California, Gavin Newsom, and starting February 16, all those who are vaccinated will be able to leave their masks indoors.
Also joining this new action are the counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Monterey, Napa, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Solano, Sonoma and the City of Berkeley, where universal facemask requirements will be eliminated for most indoor public places.
However, unvaccinated persons over two years of age should continue to wear masks in all enclosed public places.
In addition, businesses, venue operators and hosts can determine their own paths to follow to protect staff and customers and may choose to require all customers to wear face masks.
This change, where vaccinees will be able to leave facemasks indoors, aligns with the California Department of Public Health's (CDPH) decision to let the state's indoor facemask requirement, which was installed on December 15 during the last wave of COVID-19, expire.
Of note, the state still requires the use of facemasks indoors for everyone, regardless of immunization status, on public transportation, health care settings, congregate settings such as correctional facilities and homeless shelters, long-term care facilities, and in K-12 schools and day care centers.
Bay Area health officials, in line with CDPH, continue to strongly recommend the use of facemasks as an effective tool to prevent the spread of the virus, especially when case rates are high or when additional personal protection is needed.
Continuing to wear masks in enclosed public spaces, especially in crowded or poorly ventilated spaces, remains the safest option for an individual and protects those who are medically vulnerable or unable to be vaccinated, such as younger children.
As the evidence continues to show, vaccines and boosters remain the best defense against the virus.
The highly contagious variant of Omicron brought a new stage of the pandemic with a large number of new infections, but significantly fewer cases of life-threatening diseases, especially for those who are vaccinated and boosted.
While relaxing indoor mask requirements is part of a population-level shift toward a "new normal" of living with disease, health officials recognize that essential workers and communities of color continue to be greatly impacted by COVID-19 and will need additional support to limit growing health disparities.
Changes to health orders and recommendations may be updated as health officials look at data to assess whether additional protective measures may be needed as the virus evolves and/or if surges occur in the future.
People should continue to choose layered prevention strategies, such as wearing well-fitting masks - best are N95 or double-layer fabric over surgical; staying home and testing when symptoms are present; testing before meetings; and improving indoor ventilation in situations where these strategies can add protection for themselves and others.
In addition, and above all, keeping "up to date" with vaccinations, i.e., the primary series and boosters when eligible, remains the most important way to prevent serious illness, hospitalizations and deaths.
In San Mateo County, the level of virus transmission remains high, but has been significantly reduced since the peak in early January.
The average 7-day delayed case rate reported by the state on Monday was 85 cases per 100,000 population, down from 144 a week ago.
Since the 7-day peak of 239 cases per 100,000 population on January 8, the case rate has decreased by 64 percent.
"As public restrictions and mandates decrease over time, it behooves all of us to continue to take appropriate precautions," said Dr. Scott Morrow, San Mateo County health officer. "As much as we would all like to see COVID-related problems end, they have not. COVID continues to cause many serious illnesses and deaths."
It should be noted that CDPH continues to require the use of facemasks in K-12 school settings, but has indicated that adjustments to state policies will be shared in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, work remains to be done to close the remaining gaps in vaccines and boosters among children with a particular focus on equity gaps within the most affected communities.
For early education programs, such as preschool and child care settings, CDPH continues to require the use of facemasks for children over the age of two, while immunizations for children under the age of 5 are currently under federal review.
"Wearing a mask in enclosed public places and crowded places is still a good idea and something we strongly recommend," said Dr. Morrow. "If you are not vaccinated or have not received a booster, getting vaccinated right away is the best thing you can do to protect yourself, your family and your COVID community."
It is understandable that some people may feel anxious about the change where vaccinees will be able to leave the masks behind. However, people can still choose to cover their face, whether it is mandatory or not, and should respect people's choices regarding their health.
Community members who are vaccinated will be able to leave the masks behind, but should respect the choices of those who continue to wear face masks. Officials ask residents and visitors to be polite and respectful as people assess their risks and make decisions to protect themselves and those around them.
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