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Statewide masking requirements likely to ease dramatically by June 15

People walk along the boardwalk in Pacific Beach on Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
People walk along the boardwalk in Pacific Beach on Wednesday. Gov. Gavin Newsom has indicated that masking requirements will ease dramatically by June 15.
(Sandy Huffaker/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The move is fueled by an expectation that vaccine rollout will further slow spread of the coronavirus

They’re the most visible and visceral symbol of the pandemic. And by June 15, San Diegans and residents across the state may not need to use them nearly as often.

Masks.

You’ve seen them dangling from neighbors’ necks, stretched across coworkers’ chins and even fit snugly across the nose and mouth to limit the spread of a virus that has killed nearly 583,000 Americans, including about 61,300 in the Golden State.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Tuesday that the state’s mask mandate would effectively end on June 15. The only exception, Newsom told FOX 11, would be “massively large settings where people from around the world, not just around the country, are convening and where people are mixing on a real dense basis.”

June 15 is also the same day the state’s color-coded tier system, which has kept San Diegans wondering whether we’re in the purple, red, orange or yellow reopening tier (and what that means), will end.

The governor quickly walked back his initial comments around masking on Wednesday, saying there would still be some indoor mask guidelines and mandates, according to the Associated Press. But it’s clear that the state is moving toward substantially easing masking requirements. California’s Occupational Safety and Health agency, which sets rules for workplaces, is considering not requiring workers to wear masks indoors if they’re all fully vaccinated and don’t have coronavirus symptoms, according to a Sacramento Bee report.

Masks have been one of the simplest public health tools in limiting the spread of the coronavirus, with an October study projecting that universal masking would have saved 133,000 lives in the U.S. between September and February. But they’ve also been a flashpoint for those who feel the facial coverings infringe on personal liberties. Others say they’re just plain uncomfortable, making it nearly impossible to read facial expressions or to hear muffled voices in conversation.

Newsom’s initial sweeping announcement apparently caught San Diego County officials off guard.

“There was not a lot of discussion about this,” said Dr. Wilma Wooten, the county’s public health officer, during Wednesday’s coronavirus briefing. “This was a new revelation, at least for me. And I’ve been on many of the calls.”

Wooten added that the county would need to see the region’s case rate fall well below 2 cases per 100,000 residents to be comfortable doing away with masking, implying that there could be a stricter local mandate if case rates don’t drop by June 15. But a more stringent regional mandate may not be necessary given Newsom’s clarification, which was reported after the press briefing.

The region’s latest case rate was 4.1 cases per 100,000 residents, dipping to 3.7 after adjusting for the level of coronavirus testing in the county compared to the rest of the state. Driving those numbers down further will likely depend on the vaccine rollout reaching a wider swath of the region.

That could happen soon. As of Wednesday evening, it was practically a guarantee that the nearly 176,000 San Diegans 12 to 15 years of age would become eligible for Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cleared the eligibility expansion shortly after an advisory committee encouraged it to do so. The only agency that still needed to give the OK on Wednesday evening was the Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup, a team of experts from Washington, Oregon, Nevada and California that conducts its own review of the safety and effectiveness of coronavirus vaccines.

Dr. Mark Sawyer, an infectious disease expert at Rady Children’s Hospital, is part of that panel. He told The San Diego Union-Tribune that the workgroup was sure to endorse the CDC’s decision.

“There were no real surprises today” that would give the panel pause, Sawyer said in a text message.

San Diego County and local vaccine providers have already been preparing for the expansion. Chair of the Board of Supervisors Nathan Fletcher said that, upon the regional review group’s decision, parents and guardians will be able to sign up children 12 to 15 for a vaccine appointment through MyTurn (myturn.ca.gov), the state’s vaccine scheduling and notification system, with shots to go into arms starting Thursday.

The county will also offer appointment-free, walk-up vaccination for those 12 to 15 at all county-run vaccine sites with fixed locations. That doesn’t include pop-up sites, which generally use Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine.

Children will need consent from a parent or guardian to get the shot and must show some form of identification, such as a birth certificate or school identification. Fletcher noted that the county’s website (vaccinationsuperstationsd.com) would soon address these and other frequently asked questions.

UC San Diego already began signing up those in the 12-to-15 age group on Tuesday for Thursday appointments, with Rady Children’s Hospital also set to vaccinate adolescents on Thursday.

The region’s two largest health systems, Sharp HealthCare and Scripps Health, said they’ll begin vaccinating those 12 to 15 on Friday. Sharp runs vaccine superstations in Chula Vista, La Mesa and San Marcos, while Scripps operates a mass inoculation site at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

CVS and Walgreens, the nation’s biggest retail pharmacy chains, are following suit. A CVS spokesperson said parents and guardians could begin making appointments for 12- to 15-year-olds as early as Wednesday evening. CVS is also offering appointment-free, walk-up vaccination. In either case, children need to be accompanied by an adult. Similarly, a Walgreens spokesperson said the pharmacy chain would begin vaccinating adolescents Thursday and that parents and guardians could schedule appointments for children or walk into a store.

A Ralphs representative said they’d likely begin offering online appointments starting Thursday and that, while those 12 to 15 can make their own appointments, they’ll need to show up with a parent or legal guardian to get the shot. That’s also true of adolescents who show up for walk-up vaccination.

Local health systems and community advocates say vaccination has slowed recently now that many of the San Diegans most eager for a shot have gotten one. But researchers like Susan Kiene, a global health expert at San Diego State University, are hopeful that the pace will pick up now that adolescents can roll up their sleeves for vaccine.

Many of those most eager for a COVID-19 vaccine have already gotten one

She’s working with Sweetwater Union High School District to offer coronavirus testing and vaccination to middle school students. That project will likely begin in July.

Kiene’s team is already polling hundreds of parents and children at SDSU-run community testing sites to gauge their interest in getting vaccinated, and she’s encouraged by what she sees. That’s because three of every four adults who’ve been immunized say they’re likely or very likely to get their kids inoculated.

Even among parents who haven’t gotten their shots, slightly more than half say they’d have their children vaccinated.

“It might be a good opportunity to also reach the parents and see if they too want to get vaccinated at that moment,” Kiene said.

County officials have long said they hope to fully vaccinate 75 percent of eligible residents by July. That figure will tick up from 2 million San Diegans to about 2.15 million now that those 12 to 15 will be eligible. So far, nearly 1.3 million residents have been fully immunized.

Local coronavirus numbers reached a new milestone on Wednesday, with the county reporting 94 new cases. The last time the region had fewer than 100 cases was May 31 — nearly a year ago. There were also four additional COVID-19 deaths and two new hospitalizations reported Wednesday, with 149 San Diegans currently in the hospital with a coronavirus infection, in line with recent trends.

Coronavirus statistics from March 2020 to June 14, 2021.


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