Face masks will no longer be required indoors in Santa Clara County in most settings starting Wednesday, March 2, county health officer Dr. Sara Cody said on Tuesday.
The mask requirement, which county officials decided to lift after a vast improvement in metrics related to COVID-19 infections, has now changed to a "strong recommendation," Cody said. The transition from mandate to recommendation applies to all people regardless of their vaccination status, she said.
The California Department of Public Health continues to require masking in higher-risk settings such as public transit, health care facilities, shelters, jails, and long-term care facilities, and the county will follow those requirements.
"We are very encouraged by the progress we have made. We have much less COVID spreading in our community as compared to two weeks ago or even a week ago," Cody said in a statement. "While indoor masking in public spaces will no longer be required, it still makes sense to do. Wearing a mask is part of working together to protect others, especially the most vulnerable among us."
The county discontinued local rules for schools and child care settings in mid-2020 and has followed state guidance and rules since that time. On Monday, the state announced that universal masking requirements for those settings will be lifted after March 11, but strongly recommends mask use indoors in these places. Cody noted that businesses still can require patrons and employees to wear masks indoors.
County health officials had delayed lifting the mask requirement when other counties and the state rolled back the universal mask mandate in mid-February because the county hadn't met its final public health metric to lift the requirement: a seven-day rolling average of new cases at 550 or below for seven consecutive days. (The county already met its two other metrics of 80% of the population being vaccinated and low and stable COVID-19 hospitalizations.
Cody said on Tuesday the county had now reached sustained and encouraging numbers. Nearly 85% of residents have been vaccinated and nearly 70% have received boosters. The seven-day rolling average of cases has dropped to 350 per day and continues to decrease. Hospitalizations are also stable, with more identified cases being found while patients are being treated for other conditions and are not there primarily due to a severe COVID-19 infection.
But Cody also warned that the virus is still causing severe illness and deaths. It's still an airborne respiratory virus that has the potential to mutate to another variant and it can still cause large numbers of long COVID-19 cases, where symptoms and ailments can continue for months.
"Masks are still a very important layer of protection," she said at a press conference on Tuesday morning. "Along with providing additional protection for the most vulnerable individuals and groups, indoor masking, along with vaccines and other layered protections, provides the best defense against long COVID."
Whether the masks will stay off in the long run is an open question, she said. "It's a balance. At some point we do need to transition in our county (to unmasking)," but "we will have peaks and valleys. We probably will have another peak," as no one knows what variant will emerge or if it will be more contagious or severe, she said.
County leaders advise anyone showing COVID-19 symptoms to get tested right away. Under a local order, health care systems are required to provide a COVID-19 test to patients if they have symptoms or were exposed to someone with COVID-19. For more information on tests, visit sccfreetest.org.