Public health officials charged with managing the COVID-19 pandemic will take a major step next week, when restrictions spelled out in California’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy will be left behind.
“We can now begin planning for our lives post-pandemic,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom when the planned end of the Blueprint was announced in April. “We will need to remain vigilant and continue the practices that got us here — wearing masks and getting vaccinated — but the light at the end of this tunnel has never been brighter.”
In preparation for that change, Alameda County Health Officer Dr. Nicholas Moss held a webinar on May 2 to discuss the progress the county has made in the effort to combat COVID-19 and what residents and business owners can expect after the June 15 transition to new, less restrictive guidelines.
One point that Moss made repeatedly was that vaccinations have been the key to the state’s recovery and forward momentum.
“The reason we’re here, really, is because of vaccinations, but also because we were hit hard in the winter, and we have some natural immunity out there as well,” Moss said. “The progress on vaccinations allows us to think where we’re going with the pandemic. California has done well with its vaccination program, early hiccups aside. The vaccines are proving highly effective in the real world.”
As of June 6, 77.4% of people aged 12 years or older in Alameda County have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, while 62.3% are fully vaccinated. Disparities remain in the vaccination rates among the 22 communities tracked and reported by Alameda County Public Health Department. Among Tri-Valley communities, Pleasanton is ranked fourth in the county, with 84.3% of its population having received at least one vaccine dose. Dublin, in the middle of the pack, is ranked 10th with a vaccination rate 79.4%. Livermore is ranked 18th with a 70.9% vaccination rate.
Moss said that herd immunity — the point at which a sufficient percentage of the population is either immunized or has a natural immunity to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — is not expected in the foreseeable future. He cited the large number of people who have not been vaccinated locally, nationally and internationally as the reason that herd immunity won’t be a factor over the short term, leaving those who have yet to be fully vaccinated still susceptible to the disease.
“We do see COVID in unvaccinated persons, here and around the world,” Moss said. “It’s not gone away. It will continue to circulate in unvaccinated people. It’s not going to go away on its own. I think there’s a good chance we’ll see increased transmission rates in fall and winter in unvaccinated people ... We are getting to a place where mask rules are getting relaxed due to vaccines. When we see unvaccinated people not wearing masks indoors, we’ll see transmission. COVID is around. It will spread in those settings, and I think that’s why it’ll be worse in fall and winter.”
When the state lifts the restrictions associated with the Blueprint for a Safer Economy, most normal businesses will be allowed to operate without social distancing or total capacity limitations. Exceptions for large-scale events are in place. Indoor events with more than 5,000 people will require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result. The same restrictions are recommended, but not required, for outdoor events with more than 10,000 attendees. These restrictions are expected to remain in place until Oct. 1, at which point they will be reevaluated.
Mask guidelines put in place by the California Department of Public Health remain in effect. However, changes could be coming.
“Everybody in Alameda County is subject to the state (mask) mandate,” Moss continued. “They have signaled that, CAL OSHA aside, fully vaccinated people in indoor settings will not need to wear masks after June 15. I expect they’re going to follow through with that. Some mask requirements will remain, but they will be lifting, especially for vaccinated people, after June 15.”
While the state has had success with its vaccination program, only 53.1% of the vaccine-eligible population has been fully vaccinated. To encourage more residents to get the vaccine, the state launched “Vax for the Win,” a vaccine incentive program designed to motivate Californians to get immunized as the state prepares to reopen.
The program offers two levels of cash prizes. In the first level, any Californian who is at least partially vaccinated is automatically eligible for a $50,000 cash prize. A total of 30 winners will be selected. The first drawing took place on June 4. The next drawing is scheduled for June 11. In the second part of the program, $1.5 million will be awarded to each of 10 randomly selected residents. That drawing is scheduled for June 15. If someone under 18 wins, the cash will be put in a savings account until the winner turns 18.
“Getting every eligible Californian vaccinated is how we bring our state roaring back from this pandemic,” said Newsom. “California has already made incredible progress in the fight against COVID-19, with the lowest case rates in the country, while administering millions more vaccines than any other state. But we aren’t stopping there. We’re doing everything it takes to get Californians vaccinated as we approach June 15 to help us fully reopen safely.”