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Fully vaccinated OC residents will still be required to wear masks indoors, despite changes from the CDC last week saying otherwise, until June 15 — when the statewide reopening happens.

Last Thursday, the CDC said fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks indoors.

But state health officials weren’t comfortable with nixing the indoor mask mandate while they get more residents vaccinated before the statewide reopening. 

During a Monday morning news briefing, Secretary of the State’s Health and Human Services Agency, Dr. Mark Ghaly, said the delay would also give the state a chance plan for enforcing the guidelines. 

“We know that this important announcement is already triggering good questions about exactly the issue you’re raising. We do plan to continue to work with business sector employers throughout the state on how this can be done to ensure those without the masks are indeed vaccinated,” said secretary of the state’s Health and Human Services Agency, Dr. Mark Ghaly, in response to Voice of OC’s questions. 

Some local public health experts say removing the indoor mask mandate can male it difficult for retail employees who may have to verify if someone is vaccinated before allowing them into the store without a mask. 

“I worry about businesses that would still like to have people wear masks in their establishment. This is going to make it more difficult for them now,” said UC Irvine epidemiologist Daniel Parker in a Friday phone interview.

He also said it creates somewhat of an honor system, which sometimes doesn’t work out very well. 

“What I don’t like about it is it puts everything on individuals. In public health we try to stay away from that … it’s not as effective,” Parker said. 

But, Parker said, the change in federal mask guidance signals improving virus metrics. 

“The situation is getting better and the CDC must have enough evidence to feel comfortable that the vaccine is preventing transmission among people who are vaccinated. So that’s a positive that comes out of it,” he said.

Parker’s colleague, UCI epidemiologist Andrew Noymer, said it was the right move by the CDC, but it could also create confusion. 

“People read [the CDC guidelines] and say well that means the pandemic’s over. Which is not exactly what the situation is … which potentially has negative effects to make the vaccine hesitant to not go through with getting the shot now,” Noymer said in a Monday interview before the state’s mask mandate changes. 

Noymer said removing the indoor mask mandate does create an incentive for some people to get vaccinated. 

So when you take the fact that [vaccines are working] combined with the fact the epidemiological situation so great, combined with the fact that here has to be some sort of carrot — some sort of incentive to get the vaccination, it just makes sense to say if you’re vaccinated given everything that’s going on in CA, you can skip the mask,” he said. 

Ghaly also said June 15’s mask mandate removal could incentivize people to get the shot. 

“Now that they see there will be a little less masking in the community, that this is the week to get vaccinated,” he said. ‘There’s very little wait, we’re making it as easy as possible.” 

Dr. Jay Lee, chief medical officer for the local health clinic Share Our Selves, said he was concerned about the CDC’s recommendations of not having fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors.

“Where I do have discomfort is not masking indoors with other people, especially in a large crowd. And now, again, the essential workers are put into the fray on enforcing rules,” Lee said in a Monday phone interview, before the state announced updates to the mask mandate.

He said it was bad timing on the CDC’s part. 

“I was surprised actually that an announcement came at a time when we were just starting to get news out on vaccinations for 12 to 15 year olds. So I do think, even though the science supports it, I think the timing of the message is troubling.”

Last week, the Pfizer vaccine was made available to people as young as 12 years old. 

Lee said the CDC should’ve taken more time crafting a message and come up with policy ideas before updating their guidelines. 

“What I would have liked to have seen is maybe a little bit more time to have the science communicated out and some planning how to help local businesses figure out how to manage the outcome of people deciding not to mask,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Orange County’s hospitalizations saw a small bump over the weekend. 

As of Sunday, 82 people were hospitalized, including 23 in intensive care units. 

The virus has now killed 5,031 OC residents — more than nine times the flu does on a yearly average. 

COVID deaths surpassed average yearly cancer deaths in OC. 

It’s also killed more than heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and strokes do on a yearly average, respectively. 

Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, including 543 annual flu deaths, according to state health data.

Last year, more than 24,400 OC residents died, according to the latest state health data.

According to the state death statistics, cancer kills over 4,600 people, heart disease kills over 2,800, more than 1,400 die from Alzheimer’s disease and strokes kill over 1,300 people.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

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