Spread of the extra-contagious Delta variant in the Bay Area and elsewhere has sparked a lot of chatter, and questions, about whether the relative freedom we're all experiencing with public health orders lifted could be short-lived.
The short answer seems to be, according to most experts talking to news outlets and science reporters, that in places like San Francisco where vaccination levels are very high, new mask mandates besides the one already in place for healthcare settings and public transit are not likely. It's also unlikely that bars and restaurants will all have to move outside again, unless case counts suddenly surge or vaccinated people suddenly start getting very sick.
Mayor London Breed was asked the question Wednesday of whether the Delta variant could lead to a change in current health orders, and she demurred. As ABC 7 reports, Breed said that any such changes would come from the Department of Public Health.
"I think the fact that we have so many people who are vaccinated, over 80% of the folks in San Francisco are vaccinated, we are doing really well," Breed said — though to clarify, as of today, 75% of SF residents over 12 have been fully vaccinated, and 82% of residents over 12 have received at least one dose.
On Thursday, the State Capitol instituted a new mask mandate for legislators and building staffers after a COVID outbreak occurred among nine staffers. That had some questioning whether Governor Gavin Newsom might consider new mask mandates elsewhere if the Delta variant continues on its current course and vaccination levels in some places remain sluggish.
Also this week, the World Health Organization issued a recommendation that everyone, including vaccinated people, continue wearing masks in indoor settings, but American experts say that this recommendation is based on low vaccination rates around the world.
When asked about any new statewide mandates on Wednesday, per the Associated Press, Newsom replied, "Well, if we continue to get people vaccinated that will be unnecessary. This is the call to anyone who hasn't been vaccinated: Get vaccinated. What more evidence do you need?"
The New York Times podcast The Daily covered the Delta variant this week, and science reporter Carl Zimmer said that he won't be putting on a mask to go to the store anytime soon because of how low case rates currently are where he lives, in Connecticut. But that may change if the situation changes — and experts seem to agree that if you or a loved one are at high risk for severe COVID and you're in a part of the country where vaccination levels are still low, masking up and keeping your distance from people is probably the best course of action. The Delta variant is clearly spreading rapidly, and the CDC estimated Thursday that it has already become the dominant strain of COVID in the U.S.
Zimmer reiterated what epidemiologists continue to say — including UCSF's Monica Gandhi — that if you are vaccinated, especially with the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, you are strongly protected against Delta and other variants. There are some unknowns about whether a vaccinated person can spread the disease to an unvaccinated person, and there have been a tiny percentage of breakthrough cases that turn relatively serious.
As Dr. Arthur Reingold, head of epidemiology at UC Berkeley Public Health, told ABC 7 about keeping masks on indoors, "If you are, for example an immunocompromised individual, if you live with an immunocompromised individual, perhaps that extra level of protection is a good idea because the vaccines are not perfect."
San Francisco continues to see low levels of daily new COVID cases, but hospitalizations still have not dropped to zero — and 25 COVID patients were in city hospitals as of Thursday, according to state data.
Still, the 14-day average of daily new cases in SF has doubled over the last month, from 12 earlier in the month to 24 over the last two weeks. And case counts have been rising in Alameda County as well, where hospitalizations are also spiking. Health officials there said this was largely due to pockets of the population where vaccination rates remain low.