Bay Area counties issue new mask mandates as COVID rises

In response to the increasing threat of respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19 and influenza, officials in multiple Bay Area counties have issued orders requiring health care workers in patient care settings to wear masks during the upcoming respiratory virus season. 

The measures announced on Tuesday in Sonoma, Contra Costa and San Mateo counties remain in effect from Nov. 1 through April 30. The move comes amid concerns of a potential “tripledemic” of COVID-19, flu and RSV that could strain health care systems.

It is anticipated that other health departments in the Bay Area will follow suit with similar mandates.

“Each year we see that higher rates of influenza, COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses that can cause severe respiratory infections occur annually between late fall and spring,” Dr. Karen Smith, Sonoma County’s interim health officer, said in a statement. 

She emphasized that respiratory viruses pose a greater risk to patients and residents in health care and congregate facilities, especially vulnerable groups such as young children, pregnant women, older adults and individuals with chronic health conditions. Illnesses among health care workers have the added consequence of staff calling in sick.

“Workers in direct care, health care, and congregate facilities are at risk for respiratory illness and can transmit the viruses to their clients, patients, and coworkers,” Smith noted. 

These health orders mark the first such mandates in the Bay Area since the lifting of previous mask requirements by state and county officials in April. Until now, local health care facilities had been allowed to establish their own masking rules. 

Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center reinstated a mask mandate in August due to a surge in COVID-19 cases among hospital visitors.

These new mandates apply exclusively to staff at various health care facilities. They do not extend to patients or visitors. Nor do they cover other congregate settings, such as detention centers or homeless shelters.

San Mateo County health officials stressed that health care workers are required to wear high-quality surgical masks, KN95s, KF94s or N95s that are “well-fitted to an individual” and cover the nose and mouth.

The requirements come as California’s COVID-19 metrics begin to level off after a late summer swell. Hospitalizations have climbed by about 24% statewide in the past month, from a seven-day average of 320 daily admissions to 395 per day.

By contrast, the rate in Sonoma County has increased by 44%, from 18 daily admissions to 26 per day. In Contra Costa County, the rate of hospital admissions for COVID-19 has increased since from eight per day to 12.

“It’s going up,” Anna Roth, the Contra Costa County health officer, told the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. “It’s not huge. We are able to handle the increased demand for some hospital beds. But it is going up.”

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