Sara Rubin here, writing from behind my favorite mask. (By this time in the pandemic, don’t we all have one? Mine features a Squid-patterned fabric, in honor of the Weekly’s cephalopod columnist, made for our staff by Business Development Director Keely Richter.)
I’ve gotten used to wearing masks, and still do so in many places even where it’s not required. Any time I walk into a grocery store, I mask up. Any time I walk through a restaurant, I mask up. Habit, I guess—and also a smart public health intervention to help keep whatever particles I am exhaling to myself. But recently wearing a mask indoors has been optional in many settings.
The dynamic changes tomorrow when Monterey County’s new indoor mask ordinance kicks in. That’s based on crossing a data threshold based on Centers for Disease Control data—the ordinance, while already on the books, is triggered only when the Covid transmission rate rises to the CDC’s level of “substantial” or “high.”
It seems perfectly sensible—get a public health ordinance ready to go that will only apply when needed. But the question remains, when is it really needed? Depending on whether you ask the CDC or the California Department of Public Health, Monterey County’s transmission rate is in a wildly different place.
According to the CDC, Monterey County’s weekly Covid-19 case rate is now 66.12 cases per 100,000 people (in the “substantial” category). According to the state’s data, the weekly case rate is now 38.5 cases per 100,000 (in CDC lingo, that would be “moderate” transmission—not triggering the county’s mask ordinance). So why the massive gap?
I wish I knew. Each agency uses simple math—case count and population—to calculate transmission rate. The CDC reports having a three-day lag, better than the state’s seven-day lag, but bases calculations on a weekly average, rather than a daily average over a week.
Reporters asked Moreno yesterday during a press briefing which figures give a more accurate representation. He didn’t weigh in on that question, instead urging the public to focus on trends. (The trend, while nowhere near worse times, is ticking upwards, and yes we should be wearing masks in publicly trafficked indoor settings, with or without a mandate.)
The county ordinance plainly states that it takes effect only when Monterey County’s Covid transmission rate is in the “substantial” or “high” category as calculated by the CDC. It might’ve just as easily read “California Department of Public Health”—if it did, those numbers would put us in the “moderate” category. It’s the CDPH’s figures that have governed all sorts of other phases of pandemic restrictions (remember the Red Tier/Purple Tier?) and that relies directly on the county Health Department’s figures. (The CDPH and Monterey County’s data points do jibe.)
Regardless of the data discrepancy or the ordinance, I’ll keep wearing a mask inside in public settings because it’s a good thing to do. Public health measures like mask mandates work. But public health relies on a certain degree of trust, and there’s already a faltering trust in government. When we don’t understand the divergent data points and no one is readily able to explain it, that trust is at risk of eroding even further. And the public’s trust in government seems to be a damn good indicator of how effective public health measures will be.
Wear your mask, wash your hands, and stay healthy out there.