With the statewide indoor mask mandate expiring on Wednesday, California Health and Human Services Agency (CalHHS) Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said the decision is the result of increasingly encouraging data showing positive case numbers and hospitalizations in the state.
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However, he said two more weeks of data monitoring would be necessary to make a sound decision on whether masks will continue to be required in K-12 schools.
In his statement, Ghaly said:
“[We will be] taking the time to prepare and work with the school community and communities at large … As we move forward, [we will be] basing our decision in the evidence and information that we have, and understanding that we will continue to prepare and continue to support schools to stay in person for all students.”
He emphasized that there are many students who need to attend school in person not only to get their education, but to acquire meals and other important services. He also said there are children attending school with underlying conditions and other concerns that make them vulnerable to COVID-19.
“This is not a decision we make lightly or in a hasty way,” Ghaly reassured.
Ghaly said this two-week period of data monitoring will provide an opportunity for local communities to have important conversations about what local conditions might apply and whether added protections would be considered.
“Local decisions [that are stricter than state restrictions] are not just allowed, they are well supported. They … help consider some of those local trends in the data, local trends in what works and what doesn’t work in communities, and I think that will be as it has been an important feature moving forward,” said Ghaly. “Those local health jurisdictions that are working hand-in-glove with districts and schools directly to make sure that not just outbreaks are managed and tests are available, but that these sorts of decisions are made thoughtfully.”
According to data provided by CalHHS, confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state between Jan. 14 and Feb. 14 decreased by over 75%. Hospitalizations dropped by over 40%, and test positivity decreased by almost 73% during that time period
The state reported 1,757 available beds in the ICU as of Monday, marking a 31.3% increase from the 1,338 beds available during the Omicron surge’s peak in mid-January.
Ghaly emphasized that the data was showing not only cases rapidly declining, but hospitalizations—both adult and pediatric—trending downward as well. He also said the agency was anticipating COVID-19-related deaths to decline in the coming weeks.
Ghaly also highlighted the decoupling of cases and hospitalizations, noting that while there were still a significant number of cases, fewer required hospitalization or ICU admission, and much fewer led to death. He cited the omicron variant’s lowered virulency compared to other strains of the virus.
He said the state’s decision to re-evaluate the school mask mandate for K-12 students on Feb. 28 would be based on the expectation that the hospitalization and case number data will continue to trend downward.
“The idea that we’ll continue to see reductions in numbers is very important for the decisions we are making now,” said Ghaly. “We’ve always talked about how we need to keep the hospital system well-supported and protected so they can take care of all the needs of all Californians, and this gives us a little more confidence that that’s where we’re headed.”
Ghaly also made it clear that they would not be basing their decision off of a single metric or threshold that local jurisdictions would have to meet, emphasizing the effectiveness of a comprehensive approach to decision-making on state COVID-19 restrictions that considers multiple data points.
California educators have voiced their support for this cautious approach to re-evaluating the school mask mandate. California Teachers Association President E. Toby Boyd released a statement on Monday praising the decision.
“Some communities continue to be impacted more than others. We support the administration’s decision to pause and gather more information to make a science-based decision on school masking that responds to this moment in the pandemic and helps the state transition with an eye on equity …” Boyd said. “We know that masking, strong testing programs and having good school ventilation systems in place have been key to ensuring the stability of in-person teaching and learning. We recognize that any changes will disrupt and destabilize school communities … As much as we all want this pandemic to be over, we are not out of the woods yet.”