By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Sacramento County health officials say an increase in COVID-19 cases has brought the county to a medium transmission level of concern. They are urging area residents to return to wearing masks in public.
Sacramento County health officials say an increase in COVID-19 cases has brought the county to a medium transmission level of concern. They are urging area residents to return to wearing masks in public. 

’Tis the season for cold weather and the sniffles, but as the coronavirus still lurks like the Grinch and another virus is on the rise, county health officials are urging a return to masking.

Sacramento County Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye said a recent increase in COVID-19 cases has brought the county to a medium transmission level of concern. California now tracks COVID by levels – low, medium and high – based on hospitalizations and cases. Such information was previously categorized by colors under the Blueprint for a Safer Economy reopening plan.

As of Wednesday, Sacramento County has had 354,844 total confirmed cases of COVID and is averaging 217 newly reported cases per day. Sacramento County reports a total of 3,377 confirmed COVID-related deaths, with an average of one death per day. California Department of Public Health (CDPH) data shows a 1.5% increase in positive cases since last week.

It’s flu season and many in the county are also coming down with the respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), RSV usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms that most people recover from in a week or two. RSV, however, can be more severe for small children and older people.

Experts such as Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital,” are concerned about what’s been dubbed as a “tripledemic.”

“With all three viruses on the rise, we are worried about an increase in the rates of viral infection that may lead to an increase in hospitalizations,” Blumberg said in a statement.

Dr. Kasirye didn’t have data on whether locals are coming down with COVID and RSV simultaneously.

“What I know is from talking to the pediatricians that they are seeing children that have more than one virus such as rhinovirus and RSV. You can imagine that with a combination of those two that many of the children are coming in really sick.

“With that transition to the medium level of transmission that we have, we want to remind folks that it is very important to take measures to prevent spread of disease and one of those is wearing masks,” Dr. Kasirye continued.

“Also with the [state health department’s] masking mandate, the requirement when we go to either medium or high level of transmission is that certain facilities such as jails and homeless shelters are required to start universal masking again. We are sending out a reminder to those institutions to be prepared to be able to provide masks for any individual that enters those facilities.”

Over the course of the pandemic, local civil rights groups were getting info from incarcerated community members that health protocols for isolation were not being followed and that some inmates were left to wear the same masks for days or even weeks. Several outbreaks at local facilities gave credence to those claims. Local and state officials approved early release efforts to reduce overcrowding and exposure.

Dr. Kasirye urges locals to get vaccinated to reduce the risk of severe complications from illness.

“We have a very effective vaccine right now for COVID-19. We also have a vaccine that’s available for the flu. So anyone who is eligible to get vaccinated or boosted, please make sure that you do so. It’s also important that if someone is having symptoms that they stay away from others, stay away from crowded places so that they do not spread disease,” she said.

With more people seeking medical care again, Dr. Kasirye has another warning. 

“Our request is that for people that have mild disease, that they should stay away from the emergency room so that we keep those services for people that are really sick. For children, it’s very important for [parents] to be aware of symptoms that are serious, such as high fever or difficulty breathing and make sure that they seek medical attention.”

California lifted the statewide masking mandate for vaccinated individuals in February and further loosened restrictions for others in June. With cases on the rise, some municipalities are considering reinstituting masking mandates for all.

“We are following the [state’s] mask mandate … but for the general public, it is highly recommended [to wear a mask], especially if they’re going into crowded places, and also especially if they have conditions that put them at risk, such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity.”

This time last year, Sacramento County, like many others nationwide, was being hit hard by COVID-19 variants. Things are different, but we’re not out of the woods.

“In terms of COVID, we are seeing an increase in cases, but it is much lower than what we saw last year. This time around last year is when we were starting to see the Omicron variant; the numbers went pretty high into the 200s (per 100,000) in terms of case rate. We are not seeing that,” Dr. Kasirye shared. “Nevertheless, we are seeing an increase compared to where we were at in the summer. It is still important for people to protect themselves because COVID can still be very serious, people can end up with long COVID and people can also end up dying.”

Long COVID is the term given when survivors have persistent symptoms even after being cleared of the virus.

“It’s still very important to make sure that people take measures to protect themselves as far as the flu and RSV. The numbers are much higher than what we were seeing last year,” Dr. Kasirye said. During the previous two years, “we had implemented measures such as social distancing and universal masking. Those helped to keep those numbers down, but we don’t have that right now so we are seeing an increase, especially as people are going into the holidays and traveling more. So right now it is a strong recommendation. If people are going to use public transportation, if they’re going into crowded places, [that] they do wear a mask.”