As COVID cases swell in Bay Area, experts recommend masks

In a remarkable joint statement on Friday, health officers from around the Bay Area strongly recommended but are not requiring that residents once again mask up indoors amid a swell of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

“If you’ve chosen not to wear a mask in indoor public places recently, now is a good time to start again,” said Dr. George Han, deputy health officer for Santa Clara County. “Highly contagious subvariants are spreading here. If you add layers of protection like a high quality mask, it reduces risk to you and the chance you’ll infect others.”

In addition to the masking guidance, health officials also advised that vulnerable residents start planning now for how they will access treatments — including the antiviral Paxlovid — if they do test positive. And they reminded people to resume other precautions, such as limiting large indoor gatherings or even moving activities outside.

As of Thursday, there were 397 people with COVID in Bay Area hospitals, marking a 70% increase from a month ago, according to state data analyzed by The Chronicle. San Francisco reported the biggest uptick, counting 67 people hospitalized with COVID, compared to 24 on April 12. Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties are seeing similar trends as new cases driven by the highly transmissible BA.2 omicron subvariant rise across the region.

The Bay Area reported about 30 new daily cases per 100,000 residents on Friday, substantially higher than the statewide average of 19 per 100,000.

The worrisome trends prompted health officers from the Greater Bay Area — Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Monterey, Napa, San Benito, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and Sonoma counties, as well as the City of Berkeley — to issue their joint communiqué asking residents to take personal precautions to avoid the virus. They noted that the actual case rates are likely higher than those reported because of widespread use of home tests.

“With COVID-19 cases going up in San Francisco, people are at an elevated risk of contracting COVID-19 right now, and we are urging people to take personal protections against the virus,” said Dr. Susan Philip, San Francisco’s health officer , in a statement. “People who are at high risk of severe illness or who are in close contact with someone at high risk should be especially vigilant as we get through this current swell in cases.”

In an interview, Philip added that watching COVID rates now is like watching a dismal weather forecast. “It’s not great to have to give people the news that there’s an uptick,” she said. “It’s time to think about the protective options available, but it’s good that we have those options.”

In San Francisco, the coronavirus positive test rate has reached 10.3% — more than twice California’s overall rate of 4.4%, and well above the 5% level infectious disease experts consider acceptable for controlling the spread of the virus.

Philip and other health officers said it’s not clear why the Bay Area is experiencing substantially higher case rates than the rest of the state, though they have some theories.

It’s possible that with our very high levels of vaccination, fewer people here have been previously infected than elsewhere, so there’s more opportunity for the virus to spread. Another guess is that new, more infectious variants took hold in the Bay Area ahead of other regions. The Bay Area also may just be testing more than other counties.

“I’m less worried about (why the Bay Area is higher), and more heartened that the level of severe illness is not being observed here,” Philip said.

California on Friday surpassed 90,000 confirmed COVID deaths since the start of the pandemic. That’s more than any other state, but California is the nation’s most populous and its death rate per 100,000 residents remains among the lowest in the country. The state reported about 40 deaths a day, up from 38 earlier this week.

Alameda and Sonoma County this week joined San Francisco, Santa Clara, Marin and San Mateo counties in the “yellow” tier of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 community prevalence levels, signaling that more than 200 cases were reported in the last week for every 100,000 residents. The designation signals a medium level of coronavirus present in each county, with the CDC recommending that high-risk individuals use face masks.

Contra Costa, Solano and Napa counties, alongside nearly every other county in California, remained in the “low” community tier, with fewer than 200 cases per 100,000 people.

On the separate CDC “community transmission” rating, based on case numbers per 100,000 and positive test rates, all nine Bay Area counties, along with the entire California coast, are classified as “high,” the worst level.

Marin County officials said earlier this week that case rates had tripled since the first week of April, when BA.2 became the dominant strain in the county. Congregate settings such as schools, long-term care facilities, and correctional institutions have all reported outbreaks, with wastewater samples confirming an increase in the presence of the virus in the region.

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