While the pandemic isn’t over, California entered a new phase of its COVID-19 response when it reopened June 15, removing many masking restrictions. Now, fully vaccinated people can go without masks in most indoor settings, like movie theatres and shopping centers.
But when is it still a good idea to wear masks? Public health experts and epidemiologists say that wearing masks in indoor settings remains a good idea to protect the immunocompromised, younger kids and folks who may not yet be vaccinated.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that unvaccinated people still need to wear masks in indoor settings like museums, churches and movie theaters, even though fully vaccinated people don’t need to do the same. But it still recommends that fully vaccinated people wear masks when meeting with unvaccinated and immunocompromised people.
“The protection we’re talking about for the indoor masking requirements are really intended to be focused on the unvaccinated individuals,” said Dr. Bradley Pollock, chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences at UC Davis Health.
Regardless of vaccination status, in California, everyone needs to wear a mask on public transit, in cooling centers, healthcare facilities, indoors at youth settings like K-12 schools and daycares, and at correctional facilities.
Continuing to wear masks indoors can also help keep you healthy beyond protecting you and others from contracting COVID-19, said Dr. Flojaune Cofer, the Senior Director of Policy for Public Health Advocates.
“Part of the unintended but positive consequences of us wearing masks last year was that we had a very mild flu season,” she said. “Why not wear the mask? What’s the harm in helping to reduce all of the infectious diseases spread by respiratory droplets?”
“Why not wear the mask?” is another question to consider when deciding if you want to mask up.
As of June 24, 48.9% of Californians are fully vaccinated, meaning COVID-19 still has a high chance of spreading between individuals. There are a myriad of reasons that people aren’t — or can’t get — vaccinated, and masking can protect those individuals.
“We don’t want there to be this idea that everybody who’s unvaccinated is unvaccinated because they’re unwilling, or because they don’t care about other people, or all these ways that we ascribe meaning to someone’s vaccinations,” Cofer said.
Kids under 12, for example, can’t get one of the three vaccines available in the United States. Because of that, Pollock said in K-12 schools and daycare settings, it’s important to continue having uniform masking guidelines.
“If you’re going to a school setting, everyone has to mask up,” he said. “That’s public health requirements for that safety.”
There’s also uneven vaccine distribution across communities.
In Sacramento County, vaccination averages fall below the state’s for the least healthy communities, as determined by the California Healthy Places Index and California Department of Public Health scores. Around 43.4% of the least healthy communities are fully vaccinated, compared to 45.2% statewide.
While 54% of Sacramento County's white vaccine-eligible population has gotten their first dose of the vaccine, only 41% of Black residents and 36% of Latino residents in the county have received at least their first shot.
Cofer said that the reopening may continue to unevenly impact communities where mixed vaccination status is more likely. That could further health inequities: while the vaccines authorized for U.S. use generally provide strong protection against all COVID-19 variants, scientists watching the Delta variant say that it’s both the most contagious strain and may cause more serious illness in unvaccinated people.
“We are more likely to infect someone who may also have additional risk factors because of underlying health conditions and the role that racism plays in those conditions,” she said. “Given how many people were really strongly anti-mask to begin with, the honor system could potentially have consequences.”
One of those communities is migrant farmworkers — whose jobs are transitory — since they can’t always easily access vaccinations. The United Farmworkers Foundation has been working to get vaccines distributed to those communities by going out to those communities themselves and working with community health clinics.
But UFW Foundation Executive Director Diana Tellefson Torres said that most farmworkers don’t know that they have protections from the state to get sick leave and pay when they get vaccinated, since employers have not been providing that information to them.
Under California Senate Bill 95, agricultural workers are eligible to receive up to 80 hours of paid sick leave if they’re infected by COVID-19.
“It’s crucial to ensure that there’s employer compliance, because we’re talking about low-income workers, many who are working paycheck-to-paycheck and who count on every penny,” she said.
Farmworkers who have children might not have childcare and are waiting until their kids can get vaccinated before they themselves receive the vaccine, said Tellefson Torres.
She said she’s also heard concerns about the amount of information available about the vaccines.
“Some workers are waiting to see what happens with those who have gotten the vaccine ready,” she said. “In addition to that, there are workers who still have a lot of questions about the vaccine, what it contains, and see a lot of misinformation on social media that we are combating.”
Answering those questions first — instead of jumping into encouraging people to get vaccinated — is something Cofer said is crucial to vaccination efforts.
“Sometimes, I think the framing of this is asking ‘Why are people so mistrustful?’” she said. “What is the system going to do to earn the trust that they have rightly not earned in the first place?”
She added that vaccination efforts need to consider analog ways to reach people, particularly the elderly and the unsheltered, who might not have a digital footprint.
“The digital divide also falls along racial lines, because that’s unfortunately the foundation that the things we build in this country are built on,” she said. “When we don’t address those needs, we’re also going to see disparate outcomes in terms of older versus younger people who’ve gotten vaccines.”
To make a vaccine appointment in Sacramento County, you can call 211 Sacramento at 916-529-4519 and someone will make an appointment for you.
And until July 2, Yolo County has an at-home vaccination program. Residents 12 and up can call 530-666-8665 to have a county staffer administer a vaccine between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. any day of the week.
CapRadio covered some frequently asked questions about the vaccines here.
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