Nearly two months after California lifted most pandemic restrictions, the Delta variant is driving a surge in positive COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations. That’s prompting health officials to reinstate safety guidelines—and raising questions about the possibility of another shutdown.
First identified in India, the Delta variant is believed to be twice as contagious as previous dominant COVID-19 strains—and has now thwarted plans for returning to life before the pandemic.
This week, Santa Clara County and seven other Bay Area governments issued new rules requiring residents to mask up indoors in public places regardless of vaccination status. The decision came just two weeks after the seven counties and Berkeley issued a recommendation for wearing face coverings indoors.
“Across the Bay Area region, we’re seeing COVID-19 cases surge and hospitalizations on steep rise again, particularly among the unvaccinated,” said Contra Costa County Health Officer Chris Farnitano on Monday.
Locally, the Delta variant accounts for 345 positive infections as of July 29, Santa Clara County data shows. Last week, the county reported between 170 and 320 new cases a day. The county hasn’t seen that number of new daily infections since February, data shows.
Despite having one of the highest vaccination rates in the state, the current rolling seven-day average for positive infections in Santa Clara County is now 8.5 times higher than the average on June 15, the day California lifted most restrictions such as social distancing and mask requirements.
Despite the surge in infections and hospitalizations, some health experts say it’s unlikely another full shutdown is coming.
“We might see some modified form of a lockdown,” Dr. B.B. Gerstman, an epidemiologist and professor emeritus of public health at San Jose State University, told San José Spotlight. “Something like what New York City is doing, where people are required to provide proof of vaccination.”
A city of 8.5 million people, New York City announced Tuesday that it will require vaccination proof for most indoors settings—a move that San Francisco officials are also considering, according to news reports.
A shutdown, or a renewed shelter-in-place order, might be beneficial to states with high unvaccinated rates, Gerstman said. But the question of whether the Bay Area—and Santa Clara County—will see another lockdown is more of “a political question,” he added.
Santa Clara County health officials did not respond to inquiries about the potential for another shutdown.
In California, the Delta variant accounts for nearly 85% of cases analyzed in July, a jump from 5.9% just two months prior, according to the California Department of Public Health. The strain is also driving a surge across the nation, accounting for 93% of all new cases, according to federal data.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, facing a fast approaching recall election, has avoided saying whether he will enact new statewide mask requirements or lockdown measures. Instead, he’s emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also said this week that he doesn’t expect the nation to return to lockdown, despite the concerning surge in positive infections.
“I don’t see that at all happening,” Fauci told ABC on Sunday, but the chief medical advisor to the president also warned that outbreaks will continue if people don’t get vaccinated.
White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre also dismissed concerns of another lockdown in a briefing last Friday and urged the nation to continue its vaccination efforts.
“We’re not heading toward a lockdown,” Jean-Pierre said. “Because… we have the resources to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
In Santa Clara County, 78.5% of eligible residents, or 1.3 million people, are fully vaccinated. The county recently required all of its workers to get the jab to curb further transmission. Following the county’s lead, San Jose announced this week it will impose a similar requirement.
Health experts and officials are still confident in the effectiveness of the vaccine at preventing serious illness, hospitalizations and deaths.
“I have always suspected that infections were possible among the vaccinated people,” Gerstman said. “But there’s a difference between infection and disease.”
While inoculated people can still carry the Delta variant, it’s not common for them to experience serious symptoms or hospitalization. The majority of current hospitalized cases in Santa Clara County involve unvaccinated individuals, Deputy Health Officer George Han said Monday.
According to data released by the county Wednesday, the case rate per 100,000 people among the unvaccinated in Santa Clara County is nearly four times higher than the rate among those who are fully vaccinated.
The unvaccinated population also saw a jump in case rate, from three to 25.8 per 100,000 people in July, according to the data.
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