Category Archives: Masks

VIDEO: Benicia City Council deliberates, hears public comment, and votes to lift mask mandate

By Roger Straw, February 16, 2022

For those with the stomach for it, here is the Benicia City Council’s Feb. 15 discussion and 4-1 vote to lift the citywide indoor mask mandate.  Fair warning: public comments were full of misinformation and self-centered right-wing talking points about individual freedom.  Vice Mayor Campbell was the only Council member with enough backbone and regard for scientific fact to oppose this action.  Thank you, Tom Campbell!  Republican Councilmember Largaespada led the anti-mask charge, and should pay the price when we go to the polls in November.  (See guide to the video time slots below.)

Benicia City Council video excerpt, Item 21B, Feb. 15, 2022

Guide to the video – The face covering discussion begins with the Staff Report…

    • 3:39:42 – City Manager Erik Upson
    • 3:45:00 – Council Questions – Macenski, Upson answer, Young, Upson and Stock answer
    • 3:49:45 – Largaespada slide presentation
    • 3:58:29 – Campbell slide presentation
    • 4:03:20 – PUBLIC COMMENT
    • 5:20:13 – Council deliberation
    • 5:40:10 – Motion by Largaespada to lift indoor mask mandate (second by Strawbridge)
    • 5:39:30 – ADJOURN

Benicia City Council fails to continue science-based COVID protections, lifts mask mandate

February 16, 2022
By Benicia’s Dr. Richard Fleming
(Nextdoor post, reprinted here with permission)

Richard Fleming, M.D., Benicia, CA

On February 15, our city council voted to lift the indoor mask mandate by a vote of 4-1.

While their vote was not surprising, it was disappointing.

With 8 of the 9 Bay Area counties lifting county-wide masking orders, it would have been a stretch for Benicia’s city leaders to continue the local mandate.

In written and public comments, the main point I tried to make is that if one looks objectively at Benicia’s and Solano County’s numbers, we are far behind the rest of the Bay Area. Our cases are much higher. Our hospitalization rate is mid-range, but has increased since the city council last discussed the mandate in mid-January.

And, most concerning, our vaccination rate is significantly lower than the rest of the Bay Area. Excellent data shows that 3 shots are needed (or 2 shots, if the first is J&J) for optimal protection. Currently 43.2% of Benicia residents are optimally vaccinated. The other Bay Area counties have much higher vaccination rates.

The public comment period during the meeting was spirited, and many people called for the mandate to end. While I understand people’s frustration, the reasons people calling in gave for ending the mandate did not address our current situation with the pandemic. The reasons callers brought up included: masks don’t work, they are dangerous to your health, they are divisive, they are political, they have turned Benicia into a hateful angry town, they are a product of irrational fear, few people in the rest of the country wear masks and they are all doing just fine, and masks are hard on children.

Callers said mandates are unconstitutional and people should have the individual right to do what they want.

Since none of these comments addressed where the pandemic currently stands, they would have been equally applicable a year ago.

Leaving aside the question of children, there are rational opposing views to each of these statements, based on both scientific study and U.S. judicial history, but I will not revisit those here.

Specifically on the issue of children, I think a valid case can be made that children should no longer be required to wear masks. At the same time, there is little doubt that mask-wearing by children has helped save many teachers and grandparents from getting sick. But at this point, with numbers improving, it is probably time to for children to take their masks off.

Tom Campbell, Benicia Vice Mayor

Vice Mayor Tom Campbell was the lone vote to continue the mandate. He pointed to the hundreds of medical studies which confirm the effectiveness of masking. He also referred to the fact that our numbers do not yet support lifting this safety measure, though hopefully our numbers will be better soon.

Bottom line, I think the council lifted the mask mandate a bit prematurely. I think our numbers would improve more quickly had it been left in place, but hopefully they will continue to improve anyway. We in Benicia are substantially protected by what the rest of the Bay Area is doing, since we are not a walled-off island. And the fact the rest of the Bay Area has vaccinated such a high proportion of its population and succeeded in quashing the virus more effectively than we have will help things here in Benicia.

Ultimately, the two best things we can each do are get vaccinated and boosted, and to understand that actions we each take can have an impact on others. We live in a community, and we each have freedoms, but freedoms come with responsibilities towards others.

Dr. Richard Fleming: Letter to Benicia City Council on Benicia’s Mask Mandate

February 11, 2022
By Benicia’s Dr. Richard Fleming
(posted here with permission)

Dear Council members and Mr. Upson – Should Benicia lift its current indoor mask mandate?

My recommendation is: Not yet, but hopefully soon.
Richard Fleming, M.D., Benicia, CA

Our state is lifting the statewide mask mandate February 15. Most Bay Area counties will be lifting their indoor mask mandates the week of February 14, 2022, though the specific approach varies. Some counties will require that unvaccinated people continue to wear masks in indoor public spaces, and that masks are still required by all in some indoor spaces.

There is clearly a strong desire to return to normal life and social interactions after two years of this pandemic. There are objective signs the pandemic may be on the cusp of turning into an endemic situation, given increasing vaccination rates and increasing natural immunity. But it is apparent that different geographic areas are in different stages of moving towards endemicity. And it is also clear from our collective experience over the past two years that it is not unusual to see viral spread increase after public health restrictions are lifted in defined geographic areas.

Given these two realities, I feel our city should proceed in a measured way – relying on objective data which gives the most accurate available picture of the current state of the pandemic in our city – in deciding when to lift the indoor mask mandate. This mandate, it should be noted, has been supported and complied with by the vast majority of city residents and visitors to our city. It would be tempting to yield to feelings of exhaustion with the pandemic, but doing so may lead to policy changes we come to regret.

*    *    *

When our city council put in place the current mask mandate on August 25, 2021, it decided to use an objective metric to decide when this mandate could be lifted. When case rates in Benicia stayed in the CDC-defined moderate transmission level for 30 consecutive days, masking would no longer be required. Subsequent discussions in the council have considered using more than one metric to make a mandate-lifting decision, but no decision was made and goal numbers were not established.

Using several metrics would provide greater assurance about when it would be safe to lift the mask mandate. Any single metric has some intrinsic flaws, so a combination of several would provide a more accurate picture of the state of the pandemic in our city.

Under our current metric – case rate – we have too many cases per week to stop the mask policy. According to Resolution 21-88, we need to reach 27 or fewer cases weekly and maintain that for 30 days. We are currently at 100 new cases per week. Though this number is very high, it is trending downwards. For much of January, we were averaging 200-400 cases per week. Progress is being made, and there is reason to hope that in the weeks ahead, we will achieve a moderate level of transmission. (It is important to keep in mind the caveat that case numbers are increasingly inaccurate and reflect an undercount due to the growing use of home antigen tests. This is why adopting several metrics would provide greater accuracy.)

*    *    *

Other metrics that could be used include the following. I feel that in assessing this data, we look not just at current numbers, but at trend lines, since those can provide dynamic information on the trajectory of the virus.

  • Hospitalizations. We do not have Benicia-specific data, so Solano County data can be used as a proxy. The county is currently seeing 35 covid-19 hospitalizations per 100K residents, which is close to the highest level of the pandemic. More concerning is that our hospitalization rate is trending upwards. It has risen 48% compared to two weeks ago. Our hospitalizations are rising more rapidly than any Bay Area county other than Marin, whose hospitalization rate is only 21 per 100K. So, even though the official case-rate numbers are trending in a good direction, hospitalizations paint a more concerning picture of where our county stands.
  • Vaccination rate. Currently, 78.6% of city residents have gotten 2 shots of Moderna or Pfizer, or 1 shot of J&J. Of this number, 55% are boosted. So the proportion of city residents who are truly fully-vaccinated is 43.2%. (Boosters are proven to be crucial for optimal protection.) 35.4% of city residents received full initial vaccine doses but are not yet boosted. They do have greater immunity than unvaccinated people, or those who did not complete their initial vaccine series. There are many city residents who have some degree of natural immunity, but their level of protection is not clear. A significant proportion of people who report having recovered from covid have no detectable antibodies, and it is not clear how long antibodies persist in those with natural immunity. Bottom line, while our community’s immunity is increasing, a significant proportion of our residents remain highly susceptible to serious covid infection.

Comparing our city’s vaccination rate to nearby counties, 6 of the other 8 Bay Area counties have a higher percentage of their entire county vaccinated than does the city of Benicia. We are still lagging behind in what should be achievable vaccination levels.

  • Test positivity rate. No city data is available. Solano County’s positive test rate is 19%, compared to a statewide rate of 7%.
  • Hospital capacity, ICU bed availability, and ventilator availability. In these metrics, our county is doing fairly well, though it is also true our hospital staff and health care workers are under significant stress and are looking forward to the period when covid-19 becomes truly endemic, rather than aspirationally endemic.

*    *    *

Bottom line, I encourage you to maintain your commitment to using objective data to decide on when to lift the mask mandate. I recommend you adopt 3 metrics – cases, hospitalizations, and vaccination rates – as the data to look to. Choosing a goal for each metric, and requiring 2 of the 3 goals to be met over some period of time, would help maintain a safe environment for our city. I feel making the decision based on such measures would be widely-supported in our city. And, at whatever point you decide to lift the mandate, I recommend you also clearly advise our residents that indoor mask-wearing in public spaces is still appropriate and encouraged until the metrics improve even more, and that you also allow individual businesses to continue requiring masks of their own customers.

Sources for above data available upon request.

Thank you.

Richard Fleming, M.D.

Are California’s strict COVID mandates working? Here’s what the data shows

People make their way through Union Square in San Francisco on Wednesday. Indoor mask requirements for everyone are back in most of California, though San Francisco has an exemption for offices and gyms where everyone is fully vaccinated. | Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle
San Francisco Chronicle, by Aidin Vaziri, Susie Neilson, Dec. 15, 2021

With California approaching an unfathomable milestone of 75,000 coronavirus deaths and 5 million COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, many are wondering if the state’s many mitigation measures — some of the most stringent in the nation — have made a tangible difference in reducing the toll of the virus.

On Wednesday, Californians adjusted to new rules requiring everyone to mask up again in indoor public settings for at least a

month, regardless of vaccination status — with a few regional exemptions — to blunt the impact of another winter surge.

“These are all trade-offs, these decisions,” said Dr. Michael A. Rodriguez, a professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “Many people will be upset about having to wear masks again. At the same time, will many people be saved? There is no doubt about it.”

California was among the first states to issue an indoor mask mandate, require proof of vaccination for large events, place capacity limits on private gatherings, issue vaccine requirements for schools, and impose many other rules. Masking and vaccination are all the more urgent, California officials say, as the highly contagious omicron variant gains traction.

Some recent headlines have pointed out that California’s daily case rates are now higher than those of Florida and Texas, Republican-led states that have frequently blocked pandemic control measures such as indoor masking and vaccination requirements.

As of Wednesday, the seven-day average of daily cases per 100,000 people in California reached 113, while Texas reported 102 cases and Florida 78, according to data collected by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But that is a snapshot in time — and while states’ case rates have fluctuated throughout the pandemic, California’s overall case rate is still below that of the other large states. As of Dec. 11, California’s overall COVID-19 case rate was about 13,000 per 100,000 residents; Texas’ was 15,000, and Florida’s was 17,300.

But with vaccinations protecting residents against serious disease, most experts also say case rates aren’t the only important metric when determining the pandemic’s impact.

“A lot of people are focused on the case numbers and those numbers can be overwhelming,” said Rodriguez. “But it’s those cases that require hospitalization and those who end up dying that are the most significant metrics used to get a sense of the impact of the pandemic — and what we ultimately want to bend the arc away from.”

By that measure, California’s diligent policies have helped the state avert a larger disaster.

Data collected by The Chronicle showed California with 74,685 cumulative deaths on Wednesday. It’s the most in the nation, but that is hardly surprising because California is the most populous state. On a per-capita basis, the death rate in California is 189 per 100,000 people, versus 252 for Texas and 288 for Florida.

California also has a smaller proportion of deaths after controlling for age. When comparing death rates for the 50-to-64-year-old age group in each state, California’s death rate for that cohort is 235 per 100,000 residents, compared with 257 for Texas and 274 for Florida.

While some might expect California’s numbers to be even lower relative to other states given the vast difference in policies, public health experts note that there are many factors in play in a state of nearly 40 million residents.

“California has an extremely diverse population, such as Latinos and African Americans, that may not have equal access to public health or health care facilities,” said Rodriguez. “When you you look at things in a more granular level, depending on the different areas of California, you will see differing levels of protection.”

Another indicator that pandemic measures are working is California’s relatively high vaccination rates, experts say.

Widespread uptake of vaccines and masking — most likely the result of a variety of state rules — helped the state stem a summer surge as the delta variant spread across the United States over the summer, preventing California’s health care systems from becoming overwhelmed.

Nearly 65% of Californians are fully vaccinated, state data shows. Florida is not far behind, with 62% of its residents fully vaccinated. In Texas the figure is about 56%.

“I think with all of these behaviors, however hard it is, it did make an impact,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert at UCSF.

He added that these smaller measures have prevented California from reaching the point where it had to lock down again, setting off a chain of business closures, social distancing rules and capacity restrictions.

But some argue that statewide measures are an overreach and erode trust in public health systems when they are levied seemingly at random. A regional approach that fits California’s geographic diversity would feel less punitive, said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert with UCSF.

“I think masks and ventilation made a huge difference in counties and states that imposed them before vaccination,” Gandhi said. But after vaccines became available, she said, “mask mandates didn’t seem to make a difference during the delta surge.”

Solano County Health Officer Bela Matyas said public mask requirements might help some people feel safer but that they aren’t that effective in limiting transmission. People are far more likely to transmit the virus at home or in private social gatherings, he said.

“In those situations, people don’t wear a mask,” Matyas said. “If that’s where the disease is spreading, imposing a mask requirement in a public setting isn’t going to change the spread of the disease.”

Assemblyman James Gallagher, D-Yuba City (Sutter County), criticized the Newsom administration’s one-size-fits-all approach to the pandemic given the state’s diversity. He, too, said California didn’t provide compelling evidence to show a mask mandate would be effective.

“Ultimately I think we’re at a point now, and I think we’ve been there a long time, where localities have been able to manage this virus risk on their own,” Gallagher said.

State officials appear to be listening, at least to regions that have already taken aggressive stances on masks.

After issuing the broad statewide indoor mask mandate on Monday, the California Department of Public Health said on Tuesday it would recognize the efforts that places like San Francisco, Marin, Alameda and Contra Costa counties have taken throughout the pandemic to control spread and allow them to exempt offices and gyms where everyone is fully vaccinated.

Some experts said measures like masking help enforce good behavior, even if not everyone follows them.

“It’s a statement by our public health and political leaders that, ‘We care about you,’” Chin-Hong said. “Nobody gets a kick out of telling people to wear masks. They do it because they feel like it’s the right thing for their people, and they are worried about resources like hospital systems.”

Rodriguez said he believes states that put the pandemic on the backburner and ignore virus mitigation strategies do it at their peril, especially with omicron looming.

The state reported 48 cases of the variant on Wednesday, up from 39 the day before.

Chin-Hong noted that there is a mental health toll that comes with living with restrictions for the past 21 months. Ongoing mandates drive up feelings of isolation and fatigue, especially among adolescents and young adults.

But the trade-off, he said, is those who live in more restrictive states are less prone to live in fear of illness.

“Even if you’re free from masks in Florida, you have people who are sick around you,” he said.

Chronicle staff writer Julie Johnson contributed to this story.
Aidin Vaziri and Susie Neilson are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers.