LA County reinstitutes mask mandate, Santa Barbara County sees Delta surge
It’s been more than a month now since June 15, the day when most COVID-19 restrictions, such as masking and social distancing, were no longer required for vaccinated individuals.
Since that day, the state has seen an uptick in cases associated with the contagious Delta variant, a strain of the disease labeled a “variant of concern” by the Centers for Disease Control due to its increased transmissibility.
The Delta variant has caused a severe uptick in cases in Los Angeles County, so much so that the LA County Public Health Department issued a new masking mandate that goes into effect today.
Under LA’s new mandate, all people, regardless of vaccination status, are required to wear a mask indoors.
Since the June 15 reopening, LA County has seen case rates increase by seven times, according to a statement from the county’s Public Health Department. The Delta variant has quickly become the dominant variant in the county, with more than 71% of sequenced test samples showing evidence of the variant between June 27 and July 3.
Throughout the pandemic, Santa Barbara County has historically lagged disease trends in Los Angeles County by just a few weeks.
This is proving true even now as the county is seeing an uptick in case rates associated with the spread of the Delta variant. As of the end of June, 50% of specimens sequenced in the county show the Delta variant, according to the Public Health Department.
Dr. David Fisk, an infectious disease expert with Cottage Health and Sansum Clinic, told the News-Press that given surging case rates in Los Angeles, the county’s decision to reinstitute a masking mandate is “very appropriate.”
“We also know there is strong evidence that masking when in indoor environments and the use of physical distancing has significant reduction in transmission, and so simply, looking at the issues of how many people are susceptible and what are our options to prevent it, masking comes with it,” Dr. Fisk said.
While the vaccines widely available in the United States — the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines – provide strong protection against the variant, the protection is not perfect. Dr. Fisk said the vaccines offer about 80% protection against the Delta strain, leaving about a 20% chance for breakthrough infection among vaccinated folks.
As a result of this risk, Dr. Fisk said all Santa Barbara County residents, even those who are vaccinated, should consider wearing a mask indoors when in close proximity with others.
“The best approach, we know with certainty now, to slow and reverse the progression of COVID in our community is to encourage as many people as possible to get vaccinated and for all of us to mask in indoor settings when we are in close proximity with others,” Dr. Fisk said.
Dr. Fisk also praised the University of California system for requiring all students to get vaccinated before returning to campus in the fall. According to early projections, the Delta variant is expected to peak in the fall, and having students vaccinated will protect the population of students from widespread outbreaks, Dr. Fisk said.
While Santa Barbara County has not issued any updated mask mandates, a return to indoor masking and the spread of the Delta variant could have an impact on economic recovery, Dr. Peter Rupert, a UCSB economics professor, told the News-Press.
Despite the June reopening, the county is still down about 15,000 workers compared to pre-pandemic numbers, and the local hospitality industry is still lagging in pre-pandemic employment by about 50%, Dr. Rupert said.
The region is also seeing the impacts of a nationwide labor shortage, according to Dr. Rupert. While many business sectors have largely reopened, the service industry and hospitality industry are struggling to get workers to come back.
While the U.S. added 850,000 jobs in June according to the latest report from the U.S. Labor Department, employment still lags pre-pandemic levels by about 6.8 million jobs, according to the Associated Press.
As the economy “claws its way back,” Dr. Rupert said Santa Barbara County could impact the region economically if a mask mandate was reinstituted.
“I don’t think we would suffer as much only because we did a bunch of things (during the first shutdown), like building some infrastructure so that more things can be outside, more things can be socially distanced,” Dr. Rupert said. “I think people are more aware. But still, there’s going to be some people who say ‘No, I’m not going to a restaurant. I don’t want to get this variant.”
“I think (the variant) certainly will give people pause and would really slow down the recovery,” he continued. “I don’t think it would be nearly as big as when the shutdown happened, but surely we would feel it.”
Fortunately, one thing that will boost the region’s economic recovery is tourism, Dr. Rupert said. With the Santa Barbara Airport’s new Southwest Airlines service bringing in more leisure guests, the economics professor said the region’s hard hit hospitality industry could see some relief.
To aid businesses in their recovery, Dr. Fisk said residents should take steps now, like masking and social distancing, to ensure that businesses can remain up and running during the Delta surge.
“I think that if we all took the step now of improving our use of masks while Delta is surging, that would allow for our business and community to have more freedom to remain open for a longer period of time,” Dr. Fisk said. “And if we do a good job, hopefully (stay open) through the surge of Delta in the coming months.”