County reinstates indoor requirements, effective Friday
After a surge in the region’s COVID-19 cases, the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department released a new health officer order on Wednesday, which includes a new indoor mask mandate that will go into effect Friday at 5 p.m.
The order will require that all people, regardless of vaccination status, mask up in all indoor public settings. This includes inside offices, retail stores, restaurants, bars, theaters, entertainment centers, conference and event settings and in state and local government offices serving the public.
There are very limited exceptions to the order that allow people to go unmasked indoors, and these include when working alone in a closed office or room, when actively eating and drinking, while obtaining a medical or cosmetic treatment where mask removal is required, when unmasking is needed to complete an indoor religious ritual and when engaged in water sports.
The order also specifies that performers and professional athletes may remove face coverings while performing or practicing. And a mask could be temporarily removed or lowered in communications involving a hearing-impared person reading lips.
The decision to reinstate a mandate comes after weeks of climbing case rates were recorded across the county, largely propelled by the highly transmissible Delta variant. With new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealing that fully vaccinated people who experience a breakthrough infection can spread the variant, the Public Health Department decided to reinstitute a mask mandate to slow the surge.
“Requiring indoor masking is the least disruptive strategy and can make an immediate impact on limiting the spread of COVID-19, specifically the Delta variant,” Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg said in a statement. “This Health Officer Order is intended to protect everyone to the greatest extent possible, from the substantial spread of the virus being seen now in our community. In addition, the order is intended to support the continued operations of local businesses, activities and schools.”
In the past two weeks, the county’s cases have increased 55%, according to the text of the health officer order. This is accompanied by increased hospitalizations and a “concerning increase” in cases among staff and residents in congregate living facilities, Public Health Director Dr. Van Do-Reynoso said in a statement.
The climbing rate of infections has resulted in a case rate of 12.4 per 100,000 and a test positivity of 6.8%, according to the latest data from the Public Health Department.
According to these metrics, this “would have placed Santa Barbara County in the Purple Tier if the tier system were still active,” Dr. Do-Reynoso said in a statement.
Dr. David Fisk, an infectious disease specialist with Cottage Health and Sansum Clinic, praised the Public Health Department’s decision to reinstate a mask mandate following the release of the Health Officer Order on Wednesday, saying that he “fully welcomes” the measure as an added layer of protection for the community.
“I think (the mandate) is an important step and something that can be done on a wide scale effectively without significant risk to the wearer of the mask,” Dr. Fisk told the News-Press. “It makes our community a much safer place in the coming weeks where we are going to be so extraordinarily challenged by the delta variant.”
Dr. Fisk said masking is “second in importance” to getting fully vaccinated. But he noted that given the transmissibility of the Delta variant, masking indoors will help to stunt the spread of airborne particles that could infect another person with COVID-19.
Though the vaccines widely available in the United States effectively protect against severe infection and death from COVID-19, new data is showing that the vaccines do not fully protect against transmission. Recent CDC data revealed that fully vaccinated individuals who experience a breakthrough infection carry similar viral loads similar to those experienced by the unvaccinated.
Based on this new science, a mask mandate for all is needed to slow the spread of the Delta variant in the region, Dr. Fisk said.
“When vaccinated people have the ability to transmit (the virus) and just under half of the people (in the county) are unvaccinated, we can protect ourselves and our neighbors and our colleagues and loved ones by the simple act of putting a mask over our nose and mouth,” Dr. Fisk said.
He later added, “The studies consistently are showing that if you have an unvaccinated or vaccinated group of people, the masking adds additional benefit above and beyond, but the vaccine is the primary method we have as the best return on investment for reduction in COVID transmission. So, I place the masking second, but it still is very very important and can reduce COVID transmission in communities 20-30% at times, sometimes more depending on the study.”