Marin County mask mandate 'on the table' if omicron variant hits Bay Area

A surgical mask in a Ziploc bag hangs from a tree at Creek Park on August 10, 2020 in San Anselmo, California.
A surgical mask in a Ziploc bag hangs from a tree at Creek Park on August 10, 2020 in San Anselmo, California. Photo credit Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Marin County, the first in the Bay Area to lift its mask mandate under criteria agreed upon last month, could soon require masks in public indoor spaces again as public health officials await the COVID-19 omicron variant's likely spread in the U.S.

Dr. Matt Willis, Marin County Health Officer, told KCBS Radio on Monday "it's certainly on the table" to require vaccinated people to wear masks indoors in public if the new strain reaches the Bay Area.

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"Whether or not we want to re-impose the mask mandate is something we'll be considering very closely," Willis said.

In August, Marin and seven other Bay Area counties required everyone, regardless of vaccination status, to wear masks in public indoor spaces as the delta variant became the dominat strain around the world. The eight counties agreed to a set of criteria last month that would allow each jurisdiction to no longer require masks.

Marin County was the first to reach it, fully vaccinating over 80% of its population, maintaining low hospitalization rates and experiencing at least two consecutive weeks of "moderate" COVID-19 transmission, as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The county officially lifted its mandate on Nov. 1, while still requiring unvaccinated people to wear masks.

Willis said he didn't think Marin County dropped its mandate prematurely, but changing circumstances could force public health officials' hand.

"When you look at how it's moved so quickly through large populations in other parts of the world, it tells you that this is how this virus relates to humans," Willis said. "And that's probably something we can generalize to the rest of the world. This is what we saw with the delta variant."

Nearly 87% of Marin County residents who are at least 5 years old have been fully vaccinated, with almost 97% receiving at least one dose. Those rates far outpace the rest of the Bay Area, and Willis said county health officials will continue to implore residents to get vaccinated as the omicron variant looms.

"The vaccines we have are highly effective, and so our message is to obtain that protection of the vaccine and the booster," Willis said.