Sonoma County health officials support state’s delay in easing masking for students

The state said Monday it will wait until Feb. 28 to further assess pandemic trends and could at that time offer a timeline for loosening school masking rules.|

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

To track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world, go here.

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Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said Monday she agreed with the state’s decision to delay lifting the indoor mask requirement for students for two weeks.

The state said Monday it will wait until Feb. 28 to further assess pandemic trends and could at that time offer a timeline for loosening school masking rules.

“The state is doing the right thing,” Mase said Monday evening. “I think we will be aligning with the state completely on school masking.”

Earlier in the day, California Secretary of Health and Human Services Mark Ghaly announced during a news conference that no changes to school mask rules would be made this week. But he said that indoor masking rules in most other public spaces would be loosened for all but the state’s unvaccinated residents at midnight Tuesday.

Aside from schools, masking requirements will still be in effect for health care workers, in congregate living settings, prisons, and child care spaces for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

Ghaly emphasized that while the requirement is being lifted, state health officials still encourage the use of indoor masking.

“We're moving just from a requirement to a ‘strong recommendation’ not to a ‘recommendation’ and not that masks are optional,” he said.

Mase said the distinction between these designations is important. “We’re not implying that you no longer need to wear a mask,” she said.

Ghaly said if the pandemic outlook continues to improve during the next two weeks, the state will likely issue a firm date for when the school “masking requirement will move to a recommendation.”

One of the metrics state officials will be examining for lifting the student masking requirement is the rate of student vaccination.

“We will continue to prioritize getting vaccine rates up in students and use this as an opportunity to encourage families to go forward and get vaccinated if it's something you've been considering,” Ghaly said.

In Sonoma County, the vaccination rate for the youngest students lags behind that of older students. Nearly 55% of local kids ages 5 to 11 are not vaccinated, compared to 26% of youth ages 12 to 15 who are unvaccinated, according to the county’s latest vaccination data.

Mase said the vaccination rate gap between older and younger students is not surprising. She said the vaccine was approved for younger students, ages 5 to 11, in November. The county started vaccinating children, ages 11 to 15, back in May.

The changes to mask rules come as virus transmission and test positivity, the share of COVID-19 test results that are positive, continue to decline in Sonoma County.

The current rate of spread is 56.6 new daily cases per 100,000 residents, down from a high on Jan. 10 of 249 new cases per 100,000 people, according to county public health data. Test positivity decreased from just above 22% on Jan. 17 to a current rate of 10.5%.

During the past two weeks, virus spread has declined nearly 70%, compared to declines of 65% and 70% for the United States and California, respectively, according to COVID-19 tracking by the New York Times.

Ghaly acknowledged that many parents will likely be frustrated that the masking requirement is not being lifted this week. But he noted that while some parents want to do away with the mask rule at school, other parents are feeling fear and anxiety.

“We know there are other voices that are to be heard and to be considered,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

To track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world, go here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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