State public health officials said Wednesday that indoor mask requirements in schools are likely to remain in place into 2022, but could be modified as more students get vaccinated against COVID-19.
In a briefing on the state's vaccination efforts, Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly and state epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan said they expect COVID-19 cases and transmission rates to fluctuate throughout the fall and winter as they did one year ago, albeit to a lesser degree because 86.8% of the state's eligible population has received at least one vaccine dose.
In addition, vaccinations for children ages 5-11 are unlikely to receive emergency authorization from federal and state regulators until late next week.
Ghaly said the state plans to "look at some of the same things that we've laid out in prior guidance in school messaging — everything from levels of community transmission, vaccine rates — and similarly looking to be able to move in a direction of loosening some of the restrictions and requirements as appropriate."
How quickly the state's schools achieve high vaccination rates among students is a matter of when, not if, as Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Oct. 1 that the state will add the COVID-19 vaccine to its list of vaccinations required to attend school in-person once the shots receive full federal approval for school-age children.
Currently, only the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has received full federal approval, and only among people ages 16 and up, while children ages 12-15 remain eligible under emergency authorization.
In announcing the requirement earlier this month, Newsom said it will take effect at the beginning of the school term following the vaccine's full approval by the Food and Drug Administration and estimated that could be either Jan. 1 or July 1, 2022.
On Wednesday, Ghaly said the latter appears more likely.
"We don't have any more clarity on when the full FDA approval will be as we inch closer to the end of this year," he said. "And given the period of time that's required, it is looking like full approval may not happen in this calendar year.
"Then, just like we have with other pediatric vaccine requirements in schools, the COVID vaccine requirement would be treated the same way," Ghaly continued. "This is not a requirement for enrollment, this is a requirement to be on campus, in person for educational activities."
In keeping mask requirements in schools through at least the end of the year, Ghaly also pointed to the start of flu season as another reason to maintain protections.
He noted that, as was the case last year, people gathering indoors because of colder winter weather and the upcoming holidays could once again strain health care systems in some parts of the state, particularly if this year's flu strain is more prevalent without a statewide stay-at-home order and mask mandate in place.
And while the state's seven-day average COVID-19 positive test rate sits at just 1.9%, Wednesday's positivity rate was slightly higher at 2.2%, pointing to a potential plateau or even start of an uptick in cases.
"Yes, we have vaccines — highly effective, free, safe vaccines — that have wrapped a blanket of protection around Californians in a big way," Ghaly said. "But we also have an open economy, we have fewer public health measures in place and we know that there's other respiratory viruses that are beginning to circulate — the flu, in other words — impacting both young people and adults."
Ghaly and Pan both encouraged residents who have yet to do so to get both a COVID-19 vaccine and a flu vaccine, which are safe to receive during the same appointment.
Likewise, both officials urged fully vaccinated residents to get a COVID-19 booster vaccination if they are eligible.
Booster vaccines are currently available for a myriad of demographics, including people ages 65 and up, adults with serious health conditions, people at high risk of contracting COVID-19 due to their job and immunocompromised people.
Information about how and where to get COVID-19 and flu vaccines can be found at myturn.ca.gov.