Santa Barbara County Health Department Director Van Do-Reynoso, Ph.D. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

“Today is the last day of the state masks mandate,” announced Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso on Tuesday, telling the Board of Supervisors that for the vaccinated, the Santa Barbara County indoor mask mandate would also be lifted on Wednesday.

The Omicron variant was easing, although public health officials were keeping their eye on its new subvariant, Do-Reynoso explained. New cases were down 53 percent from two weeks ago — down 75 percent compared to the past month — active cases were down 49 percent, and hospitalizations were down 22 percent. The number of deaths, however, lags behind the other trends, and Do-Reynoso reported five new deaths, four among people over the age of 70.

Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties are also following the state’s lead, while Los Angeles County — which would be the 11th largest state in the U.S. based on population — is only allowing mask removal outdoors.

But the unmasking of the vaccinated will not apply everywhere or for everyone in Santa Barbara; universal masking is still required at schools, childcare, long-term care, medical facilities, jails, and prisons due to the close quarters people must share. Do-Reynoso and County Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg are clearly uneasy with lifting the mandate; both were quick to say their strong recommendation, not requirement, was for everyone to keep their mask on when around other people.

Dr. Ansorg gave a graphic example of how a mask offers protection: In a crowded bar, where shouting into each other’s ears or faces is the norm, plumes and droplets of breath would linger in the air for some distance for some time, and within the secretions could be the virus that causes COVID-19. He showed a slide from a Centers for Disease Control study that demonstrated that masks — from cloth to N95 — blocked viruses by 56-85 percent.

“We cannot stay in emergency mode indefinitely,” Ansorg acknowledged. “We can now start to transition to a more sustainable mode, and return to education and recommendation, rather than mandate.”

As for the remaining requirement for unvaccinated people to continue to wear masks indoors in public, Do-Reynoso indicated that while the hospitalization and case rate trends were dropping, they remained higher in all categories for unvaccinated individuals. “We continue to see higher levels of severe illness, hospitalization, and death among unvaccinated persons,” she said, adding that she knew from personal experience, “Don’t wait; it could be too late.”

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When it came to schools, Do-Reynoso said, the state was responsible for health rules. In a press conference on Monday, California’s COVID czar Dr. Mark Ghaly expressed some of the same concerns over the rapidly changing guidance on health and safety, but he called it a matter of adaptation in the face of a rapidly changing virus. He reflected on a time in late December when the outcome of Omicron was unknown: Would medical therapeutics work against the variant? Would it affect more seniors or young people? He noted that from a peak of more than 152,000 cases in California on January 4, the current level was much lower — 30,000 on Tuesday. More importantly, where the infection value had been one person infecting one or more people, it was now one person infecting less than one other person — transmission was going down, too.

Ghaly, who is a pediatrician and has four children himself, said that though California had 12 percent of the nation’s schoolchildren, fewer than one percent of California schools had to close for COVID this school year. The blanket masking requirement at schools would be reevaluated on February 28, he said, to avoid jumping into a decision that might have to change with circumstance.

“We stand ready to adjust how we continue to live with a virus that changes and continues to throw us curveballs at different times,” Ghaly said. He added that California was learning from its experiences and had no complacency about the next variant. “Delta, Alpha — these were more virulent, more transmissible than the prior variants,” he warned, indicating there was no way to know what the next variant would bring.

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