As COVID cases swell in Bay Area, experts recommend masks

Health across the Bay Area are strongly recommending but not requiring that residents once again mask up indoors mid the current swell of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

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

As of Friday, there were 397 people in Bay Area hospitals for virus-related illnesses, marking a 70% increase from a month ago, according to state data analyzed by The Chronicle. San Francisco reported the biggest uptick, counting 67 people hospitalized with COVID compared to 24 on April 12. Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties are seeing similar trends as new cases driven by the highly transmissible BA.2 omicron subvariant rise across the region.

The Bay Area reported about 30 new daily cases per 100,000 residents on Friday, substantially higher than the statewide average of 19 per 100,000.

The worrisome trends prompted health officers from the Bay Area and counties beyond — 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 — to issued a rare joint statement on Friday, asking residents to take personal precautions to avoid the virus. They noted that the current case rates are likely higher than those reported because of widespread use of home tests.

“With COVID-19 cases going up in San Francisco, people are at an elevated risk of contracting COVID-19 right now, and we are urging people to take personal protections against the virus,” said Dr. Susan Philip, San Francisco’s health officer, in a statement. “People who are at high risk of severe illness or who are in close contact with someone at high risk should be especially vigilant as we get through this current swell in cases.”

In San Francisco, the coronavirus test positivity rate has reached 10.3% — more than twice California’s overall rate of 4.4%, and well above the 5% level infectious disease experts consider acceptable for controlling the spread of the virus.

California on Friday surpassed 90,000 confirmed COVID deaths since the start of the pandemic. That’s more than any other state, but California is the nation’s most populous, and its death rate per 100,000 residents remains among the lowest in the country. The state reported about 40 deaths a day, up from 38 earlier this week.

Alameda and Sonoma County this week joined San Francisco, Santa Clara, Marin and San Mateo counties in the “yellow” tier of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 community prevalence levels, signaling that more than 200 cases were reported in the last week for every 100,000 residents. The designation signals a medium level of coronavirus present in each county, with the CDC recommending that high-risk individuals use face masks.

“Daily reported cases in Alameda County have reached levels seen during the delta wave,” Dr. Nicholas Moss, Alameda County’s health officer, said in a statement. “Fortunately, cases remain far below what we observed during the micron surge, and hospitalizations have shown only modest increases so far. A little caution can help keep it that way.”

Contra Costa, Solano and Napa counties, alongside nearly every other county in California, remained in the “low” community tier, with fewer than 200 cases per 100,000 people.

On the separate CDC “community transmission” rating, based on case numbers per 100,000 and test positivity rates, all nine Bay Area counties, alongside the entire California coast, are classified as “high,” the worst level.

“There’s a lot of COVID out there right now, so it’s time to take more precautionary measures to protect yourself and your loved ones,” said Dr. Ori Tzvieli, health officer for Contra Costa County.

Marin County officials said earlier this week that case rates had tripled since the first week of April, when BA.2 became the dominant strain in the county. Congregate settings such as schools, long-term care facilities, and correctional institutions have all reported outbreaks, with wastewater samples confirming an increase in the presence of the virus in the region.

“Each variant is different,” said Dr. Matt Willis, Marin County’s public health officer, in a statement. “We’re learning in real-time about this new strain and what it does and doesn’t do. It’s very good at infecting people, including those who are vaccinated. But it’s not sending vaccinated people to the hospital.”

The health department recommends that residents avoid non-essential indoor gatherings while transmission levels remain high and wear a well-fitted KN95 or N95 mask in any public indoor setting.

“The virus is changing, and our approach needs to shift as well,” said Dr. Willis. “It’s increasingly likely most of us will have a date with COVID if we haven’t yet. The key is to be vaccinated and boosted before it happens so we don’t end up seriously ill. Plus we need to rally to prevent infections among the most vulnerable, and make sure they have access to treatment.”

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