California extends face mask mandate amid record COVID cases

Californians will have to keep wearing face masks indoors past Valentine’s Day regardless of vaccination, the state’s top health official said Wednesday as COVID-19 cases reached a new record fueled by the fast-spreading omicron variant of the virus.

Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said the face mask mandate will be extended a month to February 15 and reevaluated then.

“Omicron is here, and it’s here now and we can’t abandon the tools we’ve used to achieve our collective success that have allowed California to be one of the safest states in the pandemic,” Ghaly said.

California’s 7-day average of new cases reported daily nearly doubled from Friday to Tuesday, when it jumped to just over 50,000 after the long holiday weekend reporting lag. And Wednesday’s data update pushed the 7-day average even further, to 54,695, a new record high.

In the first year of the pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a statewide requirement for everyone to wear face coverings in indoor public settings in June 2020, and didn’t lift it until June 15 of this year. that was a month after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had said the vaccinated no longer needed to mask up in most indoor public settings, with the exception of public transit, schools, shelters, prisons and jails and health care facilities.

Several Bay Area counties in October reinstated the requirement, citing rising cases and concerns about worsening outbreaks over the winter.

California officials last month reinstated the statewide mask requirement for everyone down to age 2 regardless of vaccination status in all indoor public settings. The requirement began Dec. 15 and was to run through Jan. 15 before Wednesday’s extension.

The decision came as the country grapples with a punishing spike in COVID-19 infections, with the omicron variant of the virus now accounting for about 95% of cases, according to the CDC.

“We’re asking everyone to follow these four steps: Get vaccinated and get boosted if you are eligible, wear a mask, stay home when you’re sick, and take a test if you have symptoms or are looking for greater, extra reassurance before you gather with others,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday.

But lengthening the mask requirement was the only new restriction Ghaly said was being imposed despite a frighteningly sharp rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations that have put a strain on the state’s health care system and left many schools battling massive staff shortages and student absences due to illness.

The state isn’t calling for new lockdowns, school closures or other restrictions on business activity or gatherings, as were in place last winter’s deadly surge of COVID-19 cases, Ghaly said. The Super Bowl will be played in Los Angeles as planned, Ghaly added. Health officials are working with the National Football League, he said, “to make sure people can enjoy this important event” while ensuring measures are in place to avoid spreading the virus.

Despite the alarming case surge, California is in many ways in much better shape than it was a year ago, when vaccines were just rolling out and few in the state beyond health care workers and nursing home residents had received the shots.

Now, two thirds of all Californians and more than 70% of those ages 5 and older eligible for the shots have been fully vaccinated, and a third of the state’s residents have had a booster, according to the CDC.

And despite shortages and long lines in many areas, testing for the virus — whether the highly accurate PCR molecular tests performed by laboratories or the at-home antigen tests — is more widely available as well, Ghaly said.

“At the moment, we’re really happy to have an expanded toolkit and we’re not discussing business closures or further restrictions on businesses or other sectors of our economy,” Ghaly said.

Ghaly said there is no single metric the state will use to determine by Feb. 15 whether to lift the mask order, but that the decision would be based on assessments of case rates, hospitalizations and other factors that affect health care delivery.

Staff Writer Harriet Rowan contributed to this report.

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