For the second day in a row, California Gov. Newsom was asked on Tuesday if the state’s mask mandate is returning. At first, Newsom sidestepped, as he had Monday with, “We’ll see. At the end of the day, the epidemiology on the variants will make that determination.” Newsom also said that July numbers show the Delta variant present in over 60% of the state’s Covid tests genomically sequenced. Nationally, it’s 83%.
Then the governor went on to say if more people got vaccinated masks wouldn’t be necessary. “The message is,” he stressed, “get vaccinated…this is a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
Pressed again if there is a Covid-19 data point that would push the state to implement restrictions, Newsom said, “We’re not looking at physical distancing or closing anything down.”
“The answer to the Delta variant is vaccination,” said Newsom. “We don’t need masking. Just get vaccinated.”
But the governor, who is facing a recall election in September, might be engaging in a bit of magical thinking. After all, California’s largest county, Los Angeles, went back to mandating masks for everyone indoors in public last week. Counties representing the majority of the state’s population joined in.
The state on Tuesday recorded its highest number of cases since mid-February, at 4,700. A more trusted data point, the number of cases per 100,000 people, had risen to 7.2. That’s a more than threefold increase from where it was when Newsom reopened the state on June 15. By his own Blueprint for a Safer Economy tier system, which before June 15 limited business capacity and required masking in various situations, would put the state in the “Substantial” category. Newsom might argue that those requirements were softened as more people got vaccinated — and the state now has close to 21 million residents fully inoculated.
But while vaccines are clearly effective against Covid, they are less so against the more virulent Delta variant. California on Tuesday recorded its highest 7-day test positivity rate since mid-February, when only about 2 million were residents vaccinated. Something is afoot, despite the state’s vaccination progress.
Even now, only about half of its 40 million residents are fully vaccinated. And roughly 15% of California’s population is ineligible for the vaccines because they are under 12 years old. That leaves 35% of the population who, for one reason or another, have not gotten the shots. Newsom is hoping that, after warnings, pleadings and even a lottery, those people will decide it’s time to get vaccinated.
But the state’s daily vaccination rate has fallen dramatically. It went from a high of about 500,000 doses per day in April, according to the Los Angeles Times, to what the state says is the current average of 61,000 per day. Tuesday’s actual daily total is likely lower than that average, since the numbers have been falling.
The vast majority of California’s vaccinations are now given in a two-dose regimen. So let’s say 30,000 people are fully inoculated every day in California. At that rate, it will take the state another 100-200 days to get to the 70-85% inoculation that infectious disease experts say constitutes herd immunity. Those who have had the virus also have some immunity, but it is reportedly less than that of those who have been vaccinated. And with the more transmissible Delta variant now dominant in the state, Californians need all the protection they can get.
Statewide infections have been increasing over the past month as rapidly, if not more quickly, as some jumps that prompted the governor to tighten California’s restrictions, according to a review of state health data by The Sacramento Bee.
While rates are still lower, the recent infection curve is more than twice as steep than in the weeks leading up to either of last year’s shutdowns, and the hospitalization graph is comparable to them, according to a survey by The Sacramento Bee.
The state’s 7-day average test positivity rate, a trusted metric that is not impacted by testing rates and it is an average, has soared from 1% to 4.2% in four weeks. That sort of rise is unsustainable, especially since the nature of viral spread is that, once the infection rate takes off, it is very hard to stop its continued rise.
As of Tuesday, 19 counties including Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, El Dorado and Contra Costa were recording a current test positivity rate above 5%, according to state data. Positivity is highest in Lake County (12.8%), Yuba (9.8%), Humboldt (8.5%), Sutter (7%) and Mendocino (6.4%). Even of the rest of the state gets its Covid spread under control, those counties can serve as incubators of infection and, potentially, new variants. Doubly so if they’re also lagging behind in vaccinations.
The seven counties with the highest recent positivity rates, according to state figures, are all below the region’s average in terms of vaccinations. Virus experts have warned about such pockets of infection which, while the rest of the state seems fine, can harbor outbreaks and foster new variants.