Bay Area health officers recommend masking indoors; region has highest infection rate in California

Twelve Bay Area health officers on Friday recommended that people wear masks indoors amidst a new swell of COVID cases and hospitalizations.

The Bay Area now has California’s highest COVID infection rates fueled by omicron subvariants, according to a joint news release.

Although not required, masking is strongly recommended by the California Department of Public Health for most public indoor settings.

San Francisco is reporting more than 60 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, the biggest uptick in the Bay Area. Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at UCSF, said it’s a manageable caseload for hospitals.

“At this point there’s so much immunity that we’re seeing cases, but they’re mostly mild, and essentially our hospitalizations are still staying low,” Gandhi said.

The Bay Area health officials said that wearing higher-quality masks, such as N95, KN95 or snug-fitting surgical masks, indoors is a wise choice that will help people protect their health.

“If you’ve chosen not to wear a mask in indoor public places recently, now is a good time to start again,” said Santa Clara County Deputy Health Officer Dr. George Han said in a statement. “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.”

By recommending, rather than requiring masks, health officials are leaving up to each person to determine their own risk. Some already are, when it comes to dining out.

At Piperade, a French Basque restaurant on Battery Street in San Francisco, Gerald Hirigoyen, the owner, said more people are opting to dine outdoors in recent weeks, and thinks the uptick in COVID-19 cases may be impacting their choice.

Fortunately, his fully-vaccinated staff has remained healthy throughout this recent surge in cases. Masks are optional, depending on employee preference.

“so far it [COVID-19 cases surging] doesn’t translate to the business yet,” Hirigoyen said. “It’s a day by day, we’re going to have to see what’s happening.”

Health officials also said that people should get vaccinated. In San Francisco, for example, 84% of eligible residents are vaccinated.

The advisory was sent out by the counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Monterey, Napa, San Benito, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and Sonoma as well as the city of Berkeley.

The grim milestone of 1 million deaths from COVID in the United States underscores the need for continued vigilance against the virus.

The joint statement from health officers also encouraged the public to ask their doctors about antiviral medications, like Paxlovid, for people with a higher risk for severe illness. It’s an option for some that can help shorten their course of symptoms if they test positive.

MORE: Dr. Sara Cody’s message: Keep your mask handy, wear indoors in crowded spaces as virus once again arises

Rudi Miller, who graduated from Berkeley Law School on Friday, was grateful that a recent surge in COVID-19 infections among her classmates last month had largely dissipated in time for graduation.

“I think the school officials handled it really well, and the numbers dropped significantly by the time graduation rolled around,” Miller said.

She’s planning to move to San Francisco shortly, and also plans to wear a mask most of the time.

“I feel comfortable continuing to mask,” Miller said, “because I think it’s the best way to combat COVID.”

KTVU’s Emma Goss contributed to this report.

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