Zach Friend and Gail Newel.
COVID Today

Here’s how Gail Newel deals with indoor masking: That and other takeaways from her chat with Zach Friend

Says Santa Cruz Public Health Officer Gail Newel: “I really think that a mask mandate is not going to increase mask-wearing in our county. I am open to hearing otherwise.” That was one topic of discussion when she sat down with Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend on Friday.

To mask or not to mask? What about our kids? How can I feel safe throughout the county?

These are just some of the questions Santa Cruz County residents have had regarding the recent rise in COVID-19 cases, in line with the more easily transmissible Delta variant. To help answer some of those questions, county health officer Gail Newel joined Supervisor Zach Friend for a lunchtime virtual town hall Friday.

“We thought that we had turned the corner in regard to COVID, and Delta has definitely thrown a wrench into that,” said Friend. “Realistically, there may be some changing issues in regard to Delta.”

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Newel acknowledged that things had changed, but that the Delta surge was expected and likely short-lived. In viewing the patterns of Delta from India, the United Kingdom and Europe, Newel said she is hopeful that the surge will be confined to approximately two months.

“Epidemiologists in the state predict we’ll see a peak at the end of August, and that it may be essentially gone by mid-October,” she said. “Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito have lagged behind other parts of California, so let’s see how things look in mid to late October.”

Here are the biggest takeaways from the conversation:

How is Delta different?

Newel estimates that the newfound variant is six to seven times more infectious than the original coronavirus.

“This upward climb has exceeded last summer’s surge, but we don’t expect it to get anywhere near the winter surge,” Newel said. “We are expecting case rate and hospitalizations to sharply rise through the month of August.”

Currently, there are 687 active known cases, with an estimate of 40 new cases per day. Additionally, most cases have been community-acquired, meaning county health is unsure of points of exposure and it’s easier to get the infection just from being out in public.

However, as Newel says, the surge could be shorter-lived.

“The Delta variant spreads more quickly, incubates more quickly, and resolves more quickly,” she said.

What are the primary indoor settings people should be masked in?

Newel advises to play it safe.

“Personally, I’m masking in every indoor setting unless it’s in my own home or in the home of someone I know is fully vaccinated and not symptomatic,” she said.

Newel implores that masking is an easy way to protect yourself and the people around you, so it’s best to be cautious and mask up anytime in a public indoor setting with others.

What are the current vaccination stats?

Of the entire county population, 57.97% are fully vaccinated, with 66.55% partially vaccinated.

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The least vaccinated age group ranges from 20 to 30, and Newel encourages this group to get vaccinated as quickly as they are able.

What constituents a crowded outdoor event?

Based on Newel’s visit to a recent Community Bridges event, she explained how she stayed safe during the outdoor-only gathering.

“Everyone was asked to mask whenever possible,” she said. “When I’m not eating or drinking, I just put my mask back on.”

Yet there aren’t hard or fast rules for any particular event or setting.

“It’s more a matter of thinking about how the disease is spread, and assessing the situation,” Newel said.

If young and unvaccinated kids are going to get sick around here, how concerned should parents be?

While there might be concern regarding children getting sick with the current surge, children under 10 are less likely to become infected because they have fewer receptors.

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“Children are very able to wear masks and do so appropriately,” Newel said. “As long as students don’t come to school when they’re ill or symptomatic, and making sure there’s some kind of distancing, that is a nice layered approach.”

Further, as Newel states, all children’s experts agree that keeping children home from school any longer is not a safe and healthy alternative.

Should I buy a N95 or KN95?

Short answer: No.

“Unless you’re working in specific work settings, most masking is going to be effective,” Newel said.

Further, it is best to save N95 and KN95s for hospital and health care workers.

Can I still travel?

With the current surge, some might be trepid about going on their fall trips — but Newel says to take it case by case.

“We understand a lot more about how COVID is spread now, and we can do our part to keep ourselves and others safe,” she said.

It’s also important to note that many other countries around the world have not had the same vaccination opportunities as the United States.

Are hospitals already full from the rising cases?

No, they aren’t — but there is a potential shortage of health care workers.

“Our hospitals are not at capacity yet if you look at the actual number of beds — if you look at the number of staffed beds and ventilators, those numbers are way down,” Newel said.

Many staff members have been burned out from the pandemic, taken leaves of absence, taken much-needed vacations, or resigned from health care entirely, which is being reported countywide. Statewide, 22% of ICU beds are available, so California isn’t in crisis mode just yet.

Will there be a mask mandate in the near future?

Newel is still evaluating whether a mask mandate will be needed. As of this week, Santa Cruz County is in the red tier of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disease-transmission guidelines, which is high transmission. Yet, Newel believes the most important thing the county can focus on right now is vaccination.

“That’s what’s really going to save lives,” she said.

Universal masking is required in high-risk settings — health care, detention centers, shelters — and in schools, with strong recommendations for universal masking for other indoor settings and crowded outdoor settings.

“I really think that a mask mandate is not going to increase mask-wearing in our county,” she said. “I am open to hearing otherwise.”