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California once again mandates masks in indoor public spaces to slow COVID-19 spread

"Bacteria Bear" outside the Governor's office in the Capitol, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2021.
Andrew Nixon
"Bacteria Bear" outside the Governor's office in the Capitol, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2021.

California will require universal indoor mask-wearing in public spaces for one month beginning Wednesday in an attempt to stem a holiday-related rise of COVID-19 infections. The new mask mandate comes as the omicron variant of COVID-19 has been detected in multiple California counties.

Under these new rules, universal mask requirements will be in effect from Dec. 15 until Jan. 15.

State health officials also announced other measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, including testing requirements and recommendations for large events and travel. Unvaccinated people attending events with 1,000 people or more will have to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test — an antigen test taken within 24 hours, or a PCR test taken within 48. Additionally, the state recommends travelers get tested 3-5 days after returning to California.

“Today, we still have deaths happening, because of a pandemic that in many ways has a strong solution with vaccinations,” said state Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly. “So we have work to do.”

He added: “We can do this for a month. It's only a month.”

The state has seen a 47% increase in daily case rates since Thanksgiving with 14 new cases per 100,000 residents, according to Ghaly. Since the start of the pandemic, nearly 75,000 people in California and 800,000 in the country have died due to COVID-19.

However, the state has so far not seen another surge in new cases or hospitalizations since the one brought on by the delta variant this summer. The state’s seven-day average test positivity rate is 2.2% as of Dec. 12, but hospitalizations are up 14% since Thanksgiving, according to the state department of public health.

Brad Pollock, chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences at U.C. Davis School of Medicine, said he was not surprised by the new rules “given the move toward colder weather, more indoor activities and also family gatherings.”

While California as a whole is not experiencing a spike in new cases and hospitalizations as bad as last winter’s, Pollock said the new measures are likely aimed at stemming further spread.

“The circumstances on the ground change,” he said, so health experts are “trying to look where the puck is going rather than where it’s been.”

Sacramento County has seen mild increases in new cases and hospitalizations, but nothing that compares to last year’s or even this summer’s surge.

California first required all residents to wear masks June 18 of 2020, three months after the state's original stay-at-home order. It was in place for nearly a year, expiring on June 15, 2021, when the state officially reopened, ending the stay-at-home order and the color-coded tier system.

But as cases climbed following the reopening, many counties began requiring masks in some cases. Sacramento County issued an order July 30 requiring all people wear masks in indoor public spaces, which remains in effect. Some Bay Area counties started to ease masking rules in October.

California still requires masks indoors at K-12 schools, though some school districts also require them outdoors at recess, including the Sacramento City Unified School District.

Dr. Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco who co-wrote a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom about creating a plan to let children unmask, said parents need to know when their kids can go back to “normal life … which would include unmasking in schools.”

Gandhi said that kids develop a fear from wearing masks that “signals to children that they’re not safe. That’s had serious downstream effects for children with mental health affects.”

She added that the state doesn’t have the same threat as before vaccines were widely available, so the approach to the pandemic shouldn’t be the same as before.

“I think that the risk has evolved with this incredible technology — this incredible feat of science, which is vaccination,” Gandhi said.

As of December 12, 77.7% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Masks have always been required for unvaccinated people in indoor public spaces in California, but this new mandate extends to vaccinated people as well.

Copyright 2021 CapRadio