How Public Health Experts Are Adjusting Personal COVID Rules
It’s been three weeks since California relaxed its requirement that residents mask up in indoor public spaces, but not everyone has quickly changed their own daily habits.
Whether it’s because they’re still cautious about the state of the pandemic, or simply because they recognize the continued protection that masking provides, some doctors and public health experts continue to take precautions that go to beyond the minimum mandates defined at national and local levels.
Here is what they say:
“For the foreseeable future, I will be wearing my mask”
Dr. Mark Ghaly, California health and human services secretary, said he always wore a mask when grocery shopping — something the state strongly recommends but no longer requires.
“I don’t know how long I will. I hope there will come a time when… following the data, I will do something different later. But for the foreseeable future, I will be wearing my mask,” he said last week during a conversation hosted by the Sacramento Press Club.
Indoor dining in a restaurant also remains off the table for now, he said.
Ghaly lives in LA County, where the case rate on Tuesday was 86 weekly coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents, according to the Times coronavirus tracker, which puts the county in a substantial transmission category. San Francisco is recording 44 cases per 100,000 people, putting the city in moderate transmission.
Dr. Robert Wachter, chairman of the department of medicine at UC San Francisco, said case rates had dropped enough that he resumed eating in indoor restaurants in late February. On the other hand, when he is at the supermarket, he is not bothered by wearing a mask.
“I see no reason to put myself at risk while shopping, and I see a reason to go out to dinner,” he said in an interview.
Without a mask at the gym
Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert at UC San Francisco, made the same decisions.
At the gym, Chin-Hong stopped wearing a mask as soon as San Francisco lifted its order in late January. The city still requires patrons of indoor gymnasiums to be vaccinated and boosted, if eligible, or show proof of a recent negative test from a lab.
The Chin-Hong gymnasium still requires members to be vaccinated, and there is plenty of ventilation, with high ceilings.
“So I feel comfortable in all gym activities — well, except maybe spinning class, which I wouldn’t normally do anyway,” he said. “But treadmill? Yes. Free weights? Yes.”
If he were to attend a crowded indoor spinning class, Chin-Hong said he would likely wear a mask until there was less likelihood of the coronavirus circulating. Its safer conditions barometer would compare case rates around June 15, when the state fully reopened and it “felt comfortable going out without a mask everywhere.”
Security in the numbers
Another indicator of safer conditions would be when a county’s case rate drops below 50 per week per 100,000 people, Chin-Hong said. According to the Times coronavirus tracker on Tuesday afternoon, the rate for San Diego County is 137; Los Angeles County, 86; San Bernardino County, 81; Riverside County, 70; Santa Barbara County, 61; Ventura County, 44; and Orange County, 38.
In the Central Valley, the rate in Sacramento County was 69; in Fresno County it was 118; and in Kern County it was 104.
Chin-Hong said he worries about people who appear to be sheltering indefinitely. He thinks they can go out now, maybe “up their mask game in crowded indoor settings, but it’s relatively not that risky for them in low-risk settings now.”
If you’re not comfortable eating indoors, it’s a little easier in Southern California to stay comfortable outdoors, where the risk of viral transmission is greatly reduced. Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, Orange County deputy health officer who will be promoted to health officer on Friday, said other ways to reduce risk include dining at restaurants that are still practicing distancing measures, limiting time in a restaurant and wearing masks when not eating.
But everyone will have to make their own decisions. Many gyms in California do not require proof of vaccination. Although the City of Los Angeles currently requires patrons of indoor gyms to show proof of vaccinations, the City Council is due to vote Wednesday on whether to prepare an ordinance making vaccine verification optional at restaurants, gyms and other venues. .
“If you’re a healthy young person, who’s been vaccinated, who’s been boosted, and who isn’t around other people who might be vulnerable, you’ll feel a lot more comfortable going to mask-free places,” Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, a UCLA epidemiologist and infectious disease expert, said in an interview.
“An older person, someone with multiple health conditions, someone who is immunocompromised – where they are at higher risk of serious illness – would rightly want to consider using masking and the protection it offers when they walks into crowded indoor spaces,” Kim-Farley said.
Some people may also want to wear a mask to avoid the risk of bringing the virus home to a vulnerable family member, who could become seriously ill or die from COVID-19.
Living with the immunocompromised
One of them is Dr. Clayton Chau, director of the Orange County Health Care Agency, who lives with his 80-year-old immunocompromised mother. He said he wore a mask both in stores and in crowded outdoor spaces. “I’m very careful because I have someone who is high risk that I live with,” Chau said on a Tuesday night show.
“We have to make sure we don’t stigmatize people wearing masks. People should have the right to wear masks or not when there is no mandate,” Kim-Farley said.
This personal assessment is particularly essential for immunocompromised residents who do not benefit from the same level of vaccine protection as others.
But officials say people with weakened immune systems now have many more strategies than just staying home. Immunocompromised people are eligible for a fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccination and should know about Evusheld, an injectable antibody that provides long-term prevention of COVID-19.
Gatherings can be safer if participants take rapid tests just beforehand. The US government on Monday allowed every household in the country to order an additional free set of four at-home coronavirus rapid tests; many ordered the first free tests from their homes in late January. They can be ordered at covidtests.gov or by calling (800) 232-0233.
People with health insurance can also order home tests and request reimbursement from their healthcare provider. Federal authorities require insurance companies to cover the cost of eight over-the-counter home tests for each insured per month, which means a family of four can get 32 tests each month for free.
Times editor Emily Alpert Reyes contributed to this report.