Counties see alarming infection rates – Solano would be in purple if tiers were still used

Northern California counties, including Solano, have new alarming infection rates

If tier system in place, at least a dozen would be in purple

Northern California counties, including Solano, have new alarming infection rates

Vallejo Times-Herald, by John Woolfolk & Harriet Rowan, July 20, 2021

How bad is California’s Delta COVID-19 surge?

If the Golden State was still using its four-color reopening blueprint for ranking counties by infection rates, at least a dozen, including Los Angeles, Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano now would be in the most-restrictive purple tier, and many businesses would not be fully open.

And that’s using new metrics introduced in March that made it easier for counties with higher case rates to move into lower-restriction tiers once the state reached what it considered equitable vaccination rates. Using the state’s original tier definitions, 29 counties, including San Francisco, now would be purple, which meant that the virus was widespread, a Bay Area News Group analysis found.

This map is interactive at

The dire picture comes a little over a month since California authorities on June 15 dropped the reopening blueprint and its color-coded restrictions on gatherings and business activities and eased requirements for face masks in public to slow the virus’ spread. Since then, sports venues, bars and amusement parks have fully reopened, and people throughout the state gathered for July Fourth barbecues and parties.

“We’ve all forgotten about the tier system because we wanted to,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology at UC Berkeley’s school of public health. “We’re not in a very good place compared to where we were a month ago.”

California was one of the slowest states to reopen its economy during the pandemic and has one of the highest vaccination rates, especially among large states, with almost 52% of its population fully inoculated against the virus compared with 56% in New York, nearly 48% in Florida and 43% in Texas.

But like much of the United States, California is seeing rapid spread of COVID-19 driven by the highly infectious Delta variant, nearly all of it among those who haven’t been vaccinated.

On Monday, Napa, Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey counties became the latest to urge people who are both vaccinated and unvaccinated to wear masks while indoors in public places to slow the virus’ spread, joining most other Bay Area counties as well as Sacramento, Fresno and Yolo. Los Angeles made that an order Saturday.

According to the California Department of Public Health, the virus is spreading statewide at a 7-day average daily rate of 6.3 cases per 100,000 people among the unvaccinated, but at a rate of 1.1 per 100,000 people among the vaccinated. The department did not have those figures by county.

“Vaccines remain the best protection against COVID-19, including the highly infectious Delta variant,” the CDPH said in a statement Friday. “As we continue to see the real and aggressive impact of the Delta variant in rising case rates, we cannot stress enough how critical it is for eligible individuals to get vaccinated.”

California introduced its color-coded reopening blueprint last August amid a summer surge in cases after the state eased its March 2020 stay-home order to curb the coronavirus.

Under the original blueprint, counties in which the 7-day average of daily COVID-19 cases was 7 per 100,000 people or more were assigned the most restrictive purple tier.

At those rates, middle and high schools, and at some levels even elementary schools, couldn’t begin opening campuses to students. Bars were closed, and restaurants, theaters and gyms could only operate outdoors, where the virus doesn’t easily spread.

The blueprint allowed for progressively more gatherings and activities once counties’ case rates fell, putting them into the “substantial” red, “moderate” orange and “minimal” yellow tiers.

At the January peak of California’s deadly winter COVID-19 case spike, all but four rural counties were in the purple tier.

In March, as vaccines became more widely available and more people were getting the shots, state officials revised the tier metrics to account for the protection offered by immunization, making it easier for counties with high vaccination rates to move out of the restrictive tiers and reopen more businesses. Under the revised rules, the purple tier applied to counties with 7-day average daily case rates of 10 per 100,000 people or more.

On June 15, when the state ended its tier system, no California counties remained in the purple tier, and just one was in the red, while 29 were in the yellow tier.

The breathtaking pace of the virus’ resurgence already has led many local health authorities to at least recommend measures such as wearing masks indoors in public for all, vaccinated or not. But state officials for now have not changed their guidance, including allowing the vaccinated to go without masks inside.

Swartzberg noted that given how low infections had fallen since the spring, the sharp rise in new case rates still involves relatively small numbers. Statewide, the 7-day average daily case rate as of Sunday was 7 per 100,000 people, up significantly from 2 per 100,000 in early June but far lower than the 109.3 per 100,000 Jan. 9. And hospitalizations and deaths, which tend to lag new cases by a few weeks, remain on a downward slope. The 7-day average daily death rate as of Sunday was 0.01 per 100,000, down from 1.7 per 100,000 Jan. 9.

But given the Delta variant’s high transmissibility and rapid spread, even in the highly vaccinated Bay Area where many people continue wearing masks, new restrictions may be in order.

“The Delta variant’s transmissibility is so much greater than anything we’ve encountered,” Swartzberg said. “I think the Bay Area was wise in recommending masks indoors for everyone. If things continue on the trajectory we’re seeing, the Bay Area will probably have to mandate it and hope it’s sufficient to flatten the curve.”