Marin County, now with moderate transfer, may be able to lift mask mandate in three weeks

Marin County is the only county in California to have a “moderate” level of coronavirus transmission, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Wednesday, the county became the first in the Bay Area to advance to the category, shown as yellow on the agency’s color-coded map, following the summer surge caused by the highly transmissible delta variant.

If Marin County remains in the “moderate” transmission category for more than three weeks, it will almost certainly meet criteria set last week by Bay Area health officials to lift the mandate for indoor masks in public facilities for vaccinated people.

Seven of the other nine Bay Area counties remain in the “substantial” transmission category, highlighted in orange on the map. Napa County is the only holdout in the region to be stuck in the worst “high” transmission category, which is red.

California as a whole is now in the “substantial” category, along with Alabama and Florida. The rest of the states fall into the “high” category.

Marin is one of the few counties in the US with moderate transmission that is part of a major metropolitan area.

Marin County on Wednesday reported a seven-day average of 5.5 new cases per 100,000 residents per day, up from a peak of 22 per 100,000 in August. The number of hospital admissions fell in October.

“We’re seeing a steady decline in that fourth wave that peaked in early August,” Dr. Matt Willis, the county health officer, told supervisors on Tuesday.

As for potentially lifting the mandate for indoor masks across the county, guidelines from Bay Area counties — including Marin — specify that mask rules can be repealed once counties reach three benchmarks: showing that the virus is not circulating widely; that hospitals are not overcrowded with COVID patients; and that the vaccination rate is high.

Only Marin County has achieved a key vaccination benchmark of 80%. Other Bay Area counties, where vaccination rates range from about 66% to 75%, expect to reach that goal in a few months.

On Friday, Oct. 15, Marin — like San Francisco — said people can remove their masks in gyms, offices, lecture halls, and a few other institutions where the same crowd of 100 people or less congregate regularly, provided all attendees are fully vaccinated and there are no children under 12 present. But many other institutions – such as restaurants, bars and other public covered places – will have to wait for the broader nationwide rollback that hinges on low cases and higher vaccination rates.

“For those concerned that we may not be ready to lift that additional local restriction just yet, it’s important to recognize that, because of the highest vaccination coverage, Marin County is a highly protected county. It also has some of the (lowest) cases of cases in the nation,” Willis said. “So if anyone can do it, we can.”

By contrast, Sonoma County officials said at a briefing Wednesday that the ban could not be lifted until early January at the earliest.

Willis said health officials are urging older residents to get boosters because they are at higher risk of infection after vaccination. The province has set itself the target of increasing booster intake in this group to 50% by November 12.

Currently, 77% of pioneering hospital admissions in the province – 20 out of 26 people – are over 65s.

“This confirms what we’ve seen nationally, that unique age-based vulnerability,” Willis said.

Chronicle staff writer Catherine Ho contributed to this report.

Aidin Vaziri is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: avaziri@sfchronicle.com

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