Here we go: L.A. County to reinstate indoor mask mandate starting Sunday, including for vaccinated people

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Shortly before July 4, I said I thought experts like Fauci were inching towards recommending that the vaccinated start taking precautions again but were holding off until after the holiday. Too many people were looking forward to enjoying the day maskless; it would have been demoralizing and infuriating after 150 million vaccinations for the feds to suddenly turn around at the last minute and ask them to cover up at the barbecue.

It’s after July 4 now. Cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are rising in the U.S. again thanks to the B.1.617 Delta variant. And so the era of precautions has officially resumed in America’s biggest county.

On June 29, L.A. County health officials “strongly recommended” that residents starting masking up indoors again, even if they’d had their shots. That was their way of trying to head Delta off without any of the hard mandates from the first 16 months of the pandemic that the public hates so much. If the experts nudged people to wear their masks, maybe that’d be enough to get them to do it, cases would decline, and everyone could unmask again.

Didn’t work. So the strong recommendation has now become an order:

The new order, which comes a little more than two weeks after the county recommended the same protocols as a precaution, will go into effect at 11:59 p.m. Saturday, according to the county’s health officer, Dr. Muntu Davis.

Some exceptions will apply, Davis said, but the order will be similar to the requirements that were in place prior to California’s June 15 reopening…

L.A. County has seen a steep increase in coronavirus cases of late. During the weeklong period that ended Wednesday, the county reported an average of 1,077 new cases each day — a 261% hike from two weeks prior, according to data compiled by The Times.

On Thursday, Davis reported 1,537 additional cases.

Is 1,537 cases a lot for a county of 10 million people, particularly when they were seeing upwards of 20,000 during their ferocious winter surge? Of course not, but they’re trying to get ahead of a surge which they expect to build considerably. (Cases are up 83 percent in a week.) I think this is the data that’s probably gotten their attention. Cases don’t matter a lot, but when hospitalizations are creeping up that’s hard evidence of a potential problem:

Their positivity rate remains low at 2.5 percent but that’s five times higher than it was just a few weeks ago. One prominent COVID data site estimates the current infection rate to be 1.42, meaning that each infected person is infecting an average of 1.42 others. You can see how the math on exponential growth can get ugly quickly with numbers like that.

So there’s a problem, if not a crisis. What about the offered solution? We’ve already seen studies that show mask mandates don’t work; people will take the amount of precautions which they’re comfortable with per their own personal level of risk-tolerance, not the amount that the government tells them to take. To the extent the new mandate has any value, it probably lies in the signal it sends. The county’s decision to “strongly recommend” masks indoors in late June may have been shrugged off by locals in the belief that if there were anything to worry about they would have proceeded directly to a mandate. Now they’re proceeding to a mandate, a neon sign that reads “Worry.”

For what it’s worth, it’s not just the usual suspects in the public health bureaucracy who think extra precautions during a super-infectious Delta wave are called for. In the last thread I flagged an estimate that Delta may require 98 percent of the U.S. population to gain immunity before herd immunity sets in, a figure we’re never going to reach via vaccination. To slow down the spread, epidemiologists are urging precautions:

Some on social media are already complaining that telling Angelenos to mask up again now risks underselling the vaccine again, convincing holdouts that immunization isn’t enough to keep them safe from Delta. Eh, I don’t buy it. Every expert I’ve seen who’s commented publicly on Delta has made clear that the only meaningful protection from it is through vaccination. There’s already a robust pro-vax messaging machine in L.A. County too: 60 percent have gotten their first dose, a solid number by national standards. What the experts could and should do, though, is emphasize that they’re asking the vaccinated to mask up less for their own benefit than for the benefit of others. It’s not vaxxed people falling desperately ill that they’re worried about, it’s vaxxed people with an asymptomatic infection unknowingly spreading Delta to the unvaccinated, who might then end up in the ICU. That message wouldn’t undersell the vaccine. And the masking it encourages might buy time for some vaccine holdouts to go get their shots at long last before they end up infected.

Although Fauci sounded pretty confident recently that the vaccinated aren’t spreading the virus much, even Delta:

The real risk in L.A. County isn’t a wave of death, it’s a wave of new school closures when the fall semester begins next month. The CDC tried to head that off with its guidance on reopening last week but California is an indigo blue state, which means it’s hypercautious about COVID and beholden to unions. That’s a bad combination for public-school students who need to be back in class. If you’re a parent there, take today’s mandate announcement as a warning that it’s time to get out. Maybe you can get settled somewhere before classes in the fall begin.