Marin County’s COVID-19 case rate has entered the yellow tier signifying “moderate” transmission, laying the groundwork for less restrictive mask rules, the public health officer said Tuesday.
“We’re the only county in the state currently at that level,” said Dr. Matt Willis. “If you look across the nation, there are less than 1% of counties that are in the yellow ‘moderate’ status.”
Willis said the virus transmission status, as tracked by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s color-coded system, shifted to yellow Tuesday afternoon. Before that it was in the low orange, or “substantial,” tier.
If the county is able to maintain the yellow status for three weeks, Marin could lift its indoor mask mandate for all public places, according to a list of three criteria announced last week by Bay Area public health officials.
The three criteria are: three weeks at the “moderate” transmission level; sustained low COVID-related hospitalizations; and 80% of the entire county population being fully immunized. Marin has already achieved the last two criteria on the list, Willis said.
However, the first criterium of sustained lower transmission will be the most challenging, he said.
“We would expect there might be some wobble back to orange,” he said. If that happens, the clock is reset and Marin would need to start over in calculating the three weeks.
“It’s not cumulative,” he said. “It’s consecutive.”
Willis attributed the progress in lowering the virus transmission to the county’s high vaccination rate.
“We’re seeing a slow but steady decline since early August,” he told the county Board of Supervisors at its public meeting Tuesday.
As of Tuesday, 98% of Marin residents age 12 and older have had at least one shot, while 92.3% are fully immunized. Of Marin’s population of 256,317 — including children under 12 who are not yet eligible for the vaccine — 80% are fully vaccinated.
“We have the highest vaccination rate of any county in the state,” Willis said.
Effective Friday, Marin has approved several select local exemptions from the Aug. 3 indoor mask mandate.
The exemptions apply to indoor controlled private membership locations, such as gyms, offices, college classes or religious gathering places that do not serve the general public. The facilities must show proof of 100% vaccination for all members, attendees and students or workers. There are no exemptions for unvaccinated people.
Residents visiting public places such as restaurants, stores or other businesses will still need to wear masks indoors, according to the mandate approved by Bay Area public health officials, Willis said.
Also Tuesday, the county announced that students at Marin schools will no longer need to wear masks outdoors.
“Outdoor masks are now optional,” said Dr. Lisa Santora, the county’s deputy public health officer, said during a schools webinar.
Parents who want their children to continue to mask outdoors are welcome to continue the practice, but it is not strongly recommended as it was in the past.
“We are encouraging everyone to be accepting of other people’s risk aversion practices,” Santora said.
Willis and Santora said the county’s COVID-19 focus now turns to two fronts: vaccinations for children 5 to 11; and booster shots for residents 65 and older.
The booster made by Pfizer is already available, and approvals for the boosters from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are expected later this month. Flu shots, which are encouraged, may be taken at the same time, officials said.
The children’s Pfizer vaccines are expected to be considered for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Oct. 26. If that approval happens and the other agencies follow, the pediatric vaccine could be available by Oct. 29, Santora said.
Marin has already set up a mass vaccination site at Novato High School for the weekend of Oct. 30-31. Other mass vaccination sites are also scheduled in the following weeks, as well as those at individual schools and at Northgate mall in Terra Linda. Families may also contact pharmacies.
Parents of school-age children can attend an online panel discussion on the pediatric vaccines with local health experts at 6 p.m. Wednesday in English with Spanish translation. A panel in Spanish with English translation will be held 6 p.m. Oct. 20.
Event access information is at the Rethinking Schools site on the Marin County Office of Education website.