San Diego

California Announces Indoor Mask Mandate Regardless of Vaccination Status

New mandate is set to go into effect on Wednesday, Dec. 15 and last at least a month

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What to Know:

  • Mandatory indoor mask mandate goes into effect on Wed. Dec. 15
  • Mandate to last a month until Jan. 15, with health officials citing an increase in COVID-19 cases since Thanksgiving
  • Events with more than 1,000 people: attendees will need proof of vaccination or a negative test taken within 24 hours (tightened from 72 hours)

Citing a sharp increase in COVID-19 infection rates since Thanksgiving, the state announced Monday that beginning Wednesday, mask-wearing will become mandatory in all indoor public settings across California regardless of vaccination status.

The mask mandate, mirroring a requirement already in effect in Los Angeles County and select other counties across the state, will remain in place until Jan. 15.

The state will also toughen the restriction for unvaccinated people who attend indoor "mega-events" of 1,000 people or more, requiring them to receive a negative COVID-19 test within one day of the event if it's a rapid antigen test or within two days for a PCR test. The current rules require a test within 72 hours of the event.

NBC 7's Jackie Crea broke the news about the mask mandate to people in Little Italy.

State officials will also recommend, but not require, that people who travel to California or return to the state after traveling be tested for COVID-19 within three to five days.

California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said the rule change is being prompted by a 47% increase in COVID-19 case rates across the state since Thanksgiving. He said over that time, the statewide rate of daily new cases went from 9.6 per 100,000 residents to more than 14 per 100,000.

Ghaly said state officials also acted in hopes of avoiding the dramatic surge in cases experienced statewide last year during the winter holiday months, when cases across the state averaged more than 100 per 100,000 people. Nearly 20,000 people died during an eight-week period.

But that surge was before vaccines were available. Today, more than 70% of California's residents who are eligible have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Even with the recent increase in cases, the state is averaging a little more than 14 cases per day per 100,000 people.

Even so, Ghaly said hospitals in several counties with low vaccination rates are still struggling with lots of patients, including parts of Southern California in Riverside, San Bernardino, Mono and Inyo counties. Ghaly warned coronavirus hospitalizations often increase in the weeks following a jump in new cases.

"As we look at the evidence that masks do make a difference, even a 10% increase in indoor masking can reduce case transmission significantly," he said.

Under current state guidelines -- which are followed by many counties including Riverside, Orange and San Diego -- masks are only required indoors at public transit facilities such as airports, healthcare settings, adult and senior care facilities, schools, correctional facilities, homeless shelters, emergency shelters and cooling centers.

The state already technically requires mask-wearing for unvaccinated people at indoor public facilities, but the new rule will impact everyone regardless of vaccine status.

“We know that there's going to be people who don't necessarily agree with this, who are tired, who aren't going to mask,” Ghaly said. “We hope that those are few and far between, that most people see the purpose of doing this over the next month as something to protect them and their communities during a very tough time.”

Los Angeles County has long maintained a mask-wearing mandate at indoor public facilities. Ghaly said roughly half of California's population lives in counties that already have an indoor mask-wearing requirement in place.

Among the indoor public spaces affected are retail stores, restaurants, theaters, family entertainment centers and government offices that serve the public.

Face coverings are also required for everyone in these settings, whether you've been vaccinated or not:

  • On public transit, such as buses, trains, airplanes, ferries, taxis and ride services, and in the areas that serve those, such as airports, transit stations, etc. 
  • Indoors in K-12 schools, childcare and other youth settings
  • Adult and senior care facilities  
  • Healthcare settings, including long-term care facilities 
  • Detention facilities
  • Homeless shelters, emergency shelters and cooling centers

An NBC 7 crew went out to Little Italy on Monday to ask people what they thought about the return of the mandate, and heard from a barbershop owner who wasn't happy.

"Oh, my God. Not again," Vince’s Barbershop owner Boris Zavurov said. "That’s frustrating with the mask mandate, especially in our industry. We’re cutting hair. We’re servicing clients and they’re doing their beard trims, shaves and that’s really inconvenient for us."

Zavurov said he had to close down four times during the pandemic so far, and he sincerely hopes that was the last of it.

Robin Yeman hadn’t heard about the mandate being reinstated until we asked her about it. For her, the larger picture and end game are what is hard to see.

“Yea it’s definitely worth it to keep people safe, but then how many of these shots do you have to have when are you considered safe enough that you don’t have to wear a mask everywhere you go?” Yeman wondered.

Omicron in San Diego County:

San Diego County health officials announced last Thursday that the first case of the omicron variant of COVID-19 has been detected among a San Diegan who was fully vaccinated and boosted against the disease.

The patient, who was not identified, had recently traveled abroad before testing positive for COVID-19 on Dec. 8, according to the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency. (HHSA). After conducting a whole genome sequence, the Omicron variant was confirmed Dec. 9.

The patient is not hospitalized and is under isolation, HHSA said. County contact tracers are working to identify others the patient may have come in contact with.

“We expected that the Omicron variant would make its way to San Diego, and it has," said Public Health Officer Wilma Wooten, adding that more cases are expected. “We are continuing to monitor for the Omicron variant and will report any other cases to the public when they are identified.”

Multiple cases of people testing positive for the omicron variant have been reported in both Los Angeles and the Bay Area. The New York Times reported on Thursday that the mutation has been detected by testing in 22 states and 62 countries around the globe, including Canada and Mexico, which confirmed its first case last Friday after a 51-year-old person tested positive after returning from a trip to South Africa.

Cases of the coronavirus have been increasing recently in San Diego and elsewhere. On Wednesday, county officials said. The number of new infections reported in the past week — 5,418 — far exceeds the previous week's 2,955. Authorities have laid the blame for the spike on Thanksgiving gatherings, however, not the omicron variant.

A total of 562 new COVID-19 infections and 12 additional deaths in San Diego were reported on Wednesday.

As of now, the county has not changed any public health measures due to the new variant but HHSA said the county continues to work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the California Department to determine if changes should be made.

For now, the county recommends the following steps to protect against all variants of COVID-19:

  • Get vaccinated and get a booster, which are now open to everyone 18 and up.
  • Wear a mask in public indoor settings, whether you're vaccinated or not
  • Get tested if you show any COVID-19 symptoms, regardless of vaccination status.
  • Wash your hands and stay home if sick
  • Continue to practice social distancing

What Is Omicron?

On Nov. 26, 2021, the World Health Organization designated variant B.1.1.529 a variant of concern, named omicron. The decision was based on the evidence that it has several mutations that may have an impact on how it behaves. For example, on it's rate of spread or the severity of illness it causes.

A new variant, named B.1.1.529, was named a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization and given the name “omicron” from the letter in the Greek alphabet.

What's Known and Not Known About the Variant?

Scientists know that omicron is genetically distinct from previous variants, including the delta variant, but, so far, they don't know if these genetic changes make it any more transmissible or dangerous. At this point, there is no indication the variant causes more severe disease.

It will likely take weeks to sort out if omicron is more infectious and if vaccines are still effective against it.

The images of the molecular representation of omicron spike proteins released by the Amaro Lab of UC San Diego are, in a way, hypnotic and artful -- despite their deadly potential

Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, said it was “extremely unlikely” that current vaccines wouldn’t work, noting they are effective against numerous other variants.

Even though some of the genetic changes in omicron appear worrying, it’s still unclear if they will pose a public health threat. Some previous variants, like the beta variant, initially alarmed scientists but didn’t end up spreading very far.

To date, delta is by far the most predominant form of COVID-19, accounting for more than 99% of sequences submitted to the world’s biggest public database.

Do the Vaccines Already Protect Against Omicron?

It's too soon to tell — which isn't a reason for panic. It just means scientists are working on finding out.

Given omicron's plentiful mutations, it could theoretically evade vaccine-induced protection, and some experts anticipate a drop in vaccine effectiveness. Researchers will likely have answers within the next week or so after testing antibodies from people who are vaccinated, and seeing if they are capable of neutralizing the virus.

Even if omicron can evade those antibodies, the vaccines are still likely to protect against severe illness, BioNTech CEO and co-founder Dr. Ugur Sahin told the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. That's because omicron will "hardly be able to completely evade T-cells," which are the body's second line of defense against the virus, Sahin said.

This week, Pfizer announced that people who had been fully vaccinated and received its booster shots should have at least some protection against omicron.

Still, President Joe Biden instructed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to use the "fastest process available without cutting any corners," to make omicron-specific vaccines available, if necessary.

It's unclear who would be eligible for those vaccines, if they eventually get approved.

Moderna says it's already working on one, which could be ready to ship by early 2022, if necessary. On Monday, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told CNBC's "Squawk Box" that his company is waiting for more data before acting — but could have its version ready in 100 days.

Non-vaccine treatments could also be a mixed bag. Pfizer's COVID antiviral pill, Paxlovid — which has yet to be approved by the FDA — might work against variants like omicron, because it's designed to address spike mutations, Bourla said.

But fellow drugmaker Regeneron said Tuesday that its monoclonal antibody cocktail, along with any other similar drugs, could be less effective against omicron than other variants. The company said it's exploring other alternatives.

A new variant of the COVID-19 virus, the Omicron variant, has been detected in a growing list of countries and is leading to travel bans. President Biden said the variant is not a cause for panic, but urged Americans to get fully vaccinated and get a booster shot. LX News breaks down everything you need to know.

How Can I Protect Myself Against Omicron?

The World Health Organization said the most effective steps individuals can take to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus and omicron are the same: Keep a physical distance of at least 6 feet from others; wear a well-fitting mask; open windows to improve ventilation; avoid poorly ventilated or crowded spaces; keep hands clean; cough or sneeze into a bent elbow or tissue, and get vaccinated when it’s their turn.  

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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