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California extends indoor mask mandate into February as COVID-19 surge continues

Image of a COVID-19 testing site in California
Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
A COVID-19 testing center runs at the Serna Center in Sacramento, Calif, on Monday, Jan. 3, 2022.

California announced Wednesday that it would continue to require indoor mask usage through at least Feb. 15, as hospitalizations across the state surge amid omicron spread.

The announcement comes as the state inches closer to surpassing the number of hospitalizations during last winter’s surge, putting a strain on an already overstretched hospital system. Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s Health and Human Services Secretary, said that as of Jan. 5, the state is approaching 51,000 people in hospitals — with COVID-19 and other illnesses.

“Omicron is here and it’s here now,” Ghaly said. “We can’t abandon the tools we’ve used to achieve our collective success throughout this pandemic,” including masking, vaccines and boosters.

The state previously announced indoor masking requirements from Dec. 15 to Jan. 15 ahead of expected holiday travel. The state also included testing requirements and recommendations for large events and travel.

Despite the requirements, cases and hospitalizations increased dramatically after the holidays. As of this week, California is recording nearly 55,000 COVID-19 cases a day on average, up more than 500% over two weeks ago.

More than 7,400 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, including 1,280 in the ICU. While still far below the peak of last winter's surge when more than 21,000 patients were hospitalized with the virus, 75% of the state's ICU beds are currently filled, according to federal data analyzed by the Los Angeles Times.

Dr. Dean Blumberg, UC Davis pediatric infectious disease specialist, said he’s seeing the number of children being hospitalized with COVID-19 is also increasing. Vaccines aren’t yet available for kids younger than 5.

“The good news is that it's generally less severe in children,” Blumberg said. “But I'd like to caution people to remember that less severe doesn't mean that it's not severe.”

Ghaly on Wednesday confirmed that the state is seeing “more patients on a day-to-day basis than at the beginning of the last winter surge” in pediatric hospitals. Many of those children have underlying conditions and most don’t see the ICU, he said.

Still, Blumberg cautioned: “I personally can attest to seeing children in the ICU on ventilators and being very sick. So we want to prevent infection in everybody and specifically in children — we want to keep them healthy.”

Some health officials say that COVID-19 case numbers are likely being undercounted because of the number of people taking at-home tests, which are in high demand but extremely low in supply.

UC Davis microbiologist Jonathan Eisen said that could hurt the state’s ability to stem the omicron variant’s spread.

“The more information we have about total numbers, positivity rate, percentage of the population that's infected in a particular place, the better health systems are able to allocate resources and predict where they're going to have bench points,” he said.

In December, Newsom promised to have 6 million tests delivered to schools before children returned to class. By Jan. 3, when many students returned, only half of those tests were delivered, according to a report by the LA Times.

Ghaly said that as of Wednesday, the state has delivered more than 6 million tests to county offices of education for students.

“Our level of preparedness and the tools that we have in our toolbox are much more significant than they were before,” Ghaly said. “We not only have vaccines and boosters … we have greater testing capacity in abundance.”

Around three-quarters of Californians have now received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, and state health officials said last month that more than 8 million have also gotten a booster shot. Still, those rates vary greatly by region, with less than half of people in some counties getting the shot.

Over the past month, state health officials have attempted some measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, including the month-long masking requirement. Just before the holidays, Newsom announced that all health care workers would be required to receive a booster shot.

Many organizations and businesses have started to reduce in-person work hours or put other measures in place to stop the spread of COVID-19. Seven University of California schools, including UC Davis, will start classes remotely when the new term starts later this month.

Sacramento State University announced Tuesday it would delay the start of in-person classes until Feb. 7.

On Wednesday, the Grammy Awards announced they would postpone the ceremony, which had been scheduled for Jan. 31 in Los Angeles.

Copyright 2022, Capitol Public Radio.