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San Diego County and state ask all residents to mask indoors, whether vaccinated or not

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(File)

Officials are endorsing — but not mandating — indoor masking following new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

San Diego County and state officials are asking everyone — fully vaccinated or not — to wear masks in indoor public spaces to slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, echoing a plea by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Unlike Los Angeles County, state and San Diego County officials are recommending indoor masking, not mandating it. But the county’s new announcement July 27 still marks a shift from its message over the past few weeks, during which it has encouraged area residents to get vaccinated while asserting that wearing facial coverings is a personal choice.

The state issued its recommendation July 28.

The news came soon after the CDC reversed guidance it issued in May, when it said that fully vaccinated people could shed masks in nearly all indoor settings. The rise of the fast-spreading Delta variant of the coronavirus, which now accounts for about 80 percent of new cases across the United States, called for a change in tactics, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the agency, told reporters. She cited new research suggesting that some fully vaccinated people who get the virus carry high enough levels of it to make them infectious.

“This new science is worrisome and, unfortunately, warrants an update to our recommendations,” Walensky said. “The Delta variant is showing every day its willingness to outsmart us and to be an opportunist in areas where we have not shown a fortified response against it.”

Walensky reiterated that vaccines are safe and highly effective against the virus, saying that those who aren’t fully vaccinated are about seven times more likely to get sick with COVID-19 and 20 times more likely to end up in a hospital compared with people who’ve gotten two doses of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Still, the agency is asking all Americans living in areas where the spread of the coronavirus is “substantial” or “high” to wear masks in indoor public spaces such as stores, schools and other settings where people who don’t live with one another get together.

The guidance applies to any county that has had 50 or more new infections per 100,000 residents in the past seven days. San Diego County easily meets that threshold. According to the latest data available on the CDC’s online data tracker, the county logged about 130 cases per 100,000 residents July 19-25, qualifying as an area where the spread of the virus is high.

In recent weeks, the number of new coronavirus cases in San Diego County has risen rapidly, mirroring state and nationwide trends. In late June, it was common for the county to report 100 or fewer cases each day. But now, 400 or more daily cases has become the norm, with county officials reporting that they were notified of 1,264 cases on July 23, the highest count since Feb. 5. Hospitalizations have risen, too, with 200 San Diegans in a hospital due to coronavirus infections as of last week, compared with around 70 a month ago.

An infectious-disease model generated by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation shows that masking could dramatically slow the spread of the virus in coming months. But the model assumes a 95 percent masking rate, and while one study of U.S. retail shoppers reported that masking rates reached 90 percent last summer, it’s unclear whether such rates are still feasible given widespread fatigue and frustration with public health precautions.

But Jerry Sanders, a former San Diego mayor and current chief executive of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he thinks many business owners won’t mind the new guidance. After all, he said, a facial covering is much less burdensome than being told to shut down or operate at 50 percent capacity, and masking could prevent the region from returning to strict lockdowns.

“It’s really not a major step,” Sanders said. “I think it’s pretty cautionary, and I think it’s something that the business community will embrace. A lot of livelihoods are at stake. And if the difference is [between] wearing a mask and slowing down, I think that’s what we need to do.”

— The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.