Santa Cruz County Health Office Dr. Gail Newel
Santa Cruz County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Why Gail Newel reversed course on a mask mandate, and how the ‘infectious variant’ factors in

After weeks of saying a mask mandate would not be effective, Santa Cruz County Health Officer Gail Newel reversed course and issued the reinstated order to go into effect at midnight tonight. Why the change — and what could this mean about Delta’s future in Santa Cruz?

County health officer Gail Newel knows that masks are effective in the continued fight against COVID-19 — but repeatedly said in weeks past that a countywide mandate wouldn’t be practical.

Yet she changed her decision this week, announcing a reinstatement of the mandate Thursday to go into effect at midnight Friday night.

What led to that change?

Santa Cruz County Chief Health Officer Gail Newel as photographed on Jan. 6, 2021.
Santa Cruz County Chief Health Officer Gail Newel as photographed on Jan. 6, 2021.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I’ve been struggling with this for a long time,” Newel said Friday, noting that other Bay Area counties put in a mask mandate on Aug. 3. “At the time, they were in the red tier by CDC guidelines, and we were still in the yellow — but last week we went red.”

The trend aligns with Newel’s previous statements that Santa Cruz County, along with Monterey and San Benito, have typically trended three weeks behind the central Bay Area counties in terms of COVID-19. With Santa Cruz entering the red tier, the virus has a high rate of transmission, with the current reproduction rate being 1.3 cases for every infection.

Newel has seen why in her personal experience.

“In moving around the community, I was talking with folks who weren’t wearing masks indoors and said they wouldn’t until there was an order,” she said. “They weren’t going to follow my recommendations until there was a mandate in place.”

That reality was accompanied by community pressure, with many Santa Cruzans reaching out to Newel following the Aug. 3 mandate in other Bay Area counties to ask for a county mandate locally.

But while some community members asked for a mandate, others were fervently against it; Newel’s office has been bombarded with phone calls and emails since the mandate announcement Thursday afternoon.

People wearing masks walk around downtown Santa Cruz in February.
People wearing masks walk around downtown Santa Cruz in February.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The county has seen a significant increase in COVID-19 cases, largely stemming from the more transmissible Delta variant. As of Friday morning, there were 824 active known cases, up from 780 last week.

“This is just such an infectious variant,” Newel said, noting that all recent genomic sequencing has been the Delta variant.

While some county data points toward a slower case rate, Newel says it’s hard to tell.

“There’s so much demand for testing, and there’s a huge backlog for testing,” she said. “We’re not relying on the case rates right now — especially as Delta can have an incubation period as short as two days.”

Just as there’s a backlog for testing, Newel warns of the oversaturation of the health care system. As of Friday, the county’s three hospitals are at capacity for staffed beds, which is further reflected statewide.

“We don’t want to overwhelm our hospital or health care system because of this variant,” she said.

COVID-19 testing in Santa Cruz County in November 2020.

Universal masking is already required in many high-risk settings — health care, detention centers, and shelters — and in schools. County government buildings also require masking in public spaces. Newel has further implored residents to wear masks while in indoor settings and crowded outdoor settings — but the new mandate will require masking in all indoor settings, regardless of vaccination status.

Newel also strongly recommends that community members mask up at many of the county’s upcoming outdoor festivals, especially if they cannot physically distance up to six feet apart.

“Masking is one additional layer of protection in this highly transmissible virus,” she said.

With the Delta variant sparking a COVID-19 surge that’s expected to continue through August, just under 60% of Santa...

While masking is imperative at this point, Newel also aims to drive home the most effective tool against the virus, and that’s vaccination. As of Friday, 59.53% of the total county population was fully vaccinated, with 67.24% having at least one dose.

Newel believes that further mandates to attend indoor events could be the push that’s needed to drive up those numbers.

San Francisco’s order went in place today to require vaccination and vaccination verification for restaurants, fitness centers, and theaters,” she said. “We’ll likely see more of that soon, especially from employers.”

While the mandate will begin tonight, Newel emphasizes that it won’t last forever. Once the county enters the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s yellow tier, the mandate will sunset — but there’s masking and vaccination work to be done to get to that point.