Nervousness about the winter COVID surge is prompting some jurisdictions to consider new mask mandates: the Oakland City Council voted to require masking in city-operated facilities and some private businesses are tightening rules as well. Bay Area residents are also curious about testing and the possibility of reinfection. But amid the worry, the latest COVID statistics released by the state hint at the possibility of improvement, with modestly lower cases, case rates and test positivity.

Five Bay Area counties enter CDC’s “high” community virus tier

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday updated its nationwide ranking of U.S. coronavirus hotspots and five Bay Area counties — Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco, Santa Clara and Solano — moved up from the medium or yellow tier to the highest, or worst tier, designated as red. The calculation, updated daily, is based on the total number of new COVID-19 hospital admissions per 100,000 residents during the past seven days and the seven-day average for the percent of staffed inpatient hospital beds used by COVID patients. The CDC recommends indoor masking in red areas and advises people at risk to consider curbing non-essential indoor activities. The four remaining Bay Area counties — Marin, Napa, San Mateo and Sonoma — are rated in the yellow tier, as is Santa Cruz. Other counties near the Bay Area ranked in the red tier include Sacramento, San Joaquin, Merced, San Benito and Monterey.

Court upholds conviction for woman who said she had COVID after coughing at store clerks

A federal appeals court upheld the robbery conviction Thursday of a woman who took items from a Walgreens store in San Francisco, then coughed at the clerks, said she had COVID and walked out without paying. Robbery is defined by law as taking someone else’s property by using force, the threat of force or “fear of injury.” And Carmelita Barela’s “threat to expose Walgreens employees to COVID-19 could have easily put the store clerks in ‘fear of injury,’” said the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Read more about the court ruling upholding her conviction.

San Mateo Community Colleges require indoor masking as county hits yellow tier

A little-understood consequence of the changing “community COVID levels” published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are the number of institutions whose virus safety protocols are pegged to the CDC tiers and whose rules change automatically when the level is reset. Case in point: the San Mateo County Community College District — which includes Cañada College, the College of San Mateo, and Skyline College — now requires masking in all indoor locations and affiliated spaces after San Mateo County entered the CDC’s “medium,” or yellow tier last week due to rising hospitalizations. According to a memo sent to members of the San Mateo Athletic Club, which is also part of the college system, “Face coverings are now required in all indoor areas at our colleges and our District in accordance with our protocols.” The shift happened by default, as will many such changes in other Bay Area counties.

Researchers sniff out the cause of post-COVID smell loss

A small, peer-reviewed study of cells responsible for smell found key differences in the noses of people with persistent loss of smell following COVID-19, compared to those with a normal sense of smell. Researchers took 24 nasal cavity biopsies — including nine from COVID survivors with smell loss up to 16 months after infection — and found “widespread infiltration” of immune cells in the nine. The researchers also found T cells, which play a role in immune response, were more widespread in those with smell loss. The T cells were clustered mainly in the upper layers of the epithelium, unlike those with normal ability to smell. Researchers from Duke University, Harvard and UC San Diego published their study on Dec. 21 in Science Translational Medicine.

Hopeful signs in state COVID numbers ahead of the holidays

New figures released today by the California Department of Public Health show a modest improvement in the statewide COVID situation. The seven-day rolling average of new cases fell to 7,359 — or 18.3 per 100,000 people — from 8,669 and 23 cases per 100,000 a week earlier. Case numbers overall are lower than they were at the start of December, but still four times higher than two months ago. The test positivity rate continued a modest decline from a seven-day rolling average of 11.6% a few weeks ago to 10.6% now, but it’s still more than one-third higher than it was in late November. And hospitalizations were essentially flat with last week, at 4,520, while deaths statewide remain very low, averaging 20 per day.

What you need to know now about COVID testing at home or in a lab

Most residents of the Bay Area are vaccinated, and many have had booster shots. Yet a winter COVID-19 surge is under way and many people don’t know exactly what to do about testing. Are at-home tests still worth using after the FDA warned they can be less sensitive to emerging immune evasive omicron subvariants? Under what circumstances should you seek laboratory testing or medication in the Bay Area? Read more to learn the latest advice from local experts.

Does a recent COVID infection make you ‘safe’ from reinfection over holidays?

Pandemic Problems: A reader writes to ask if their 75-year-old father, who got COVID over Thanksgiving, is effectively immune from getting it again at Christmas. The Chronicle’s Kellie Hwang checked with medical experts and replies that it’s unlikely he would contract COVID again so soon, even amid the rise of new subvariants. But it is not not impossible, so some precautions remain in order. Read more about what experts said about the risk of reinfection and how long immunity lasts.

Oakland restores mask mandate in city-operated facilities amid rising COVID cases

Oakland will require all employees and visitors to wear a face mask when entering city facilities beginning immediately — an attempt to get a handle on the “tripledemic” hitting the Bay Area of COVID, flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. The Oakland City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to reinstate masks for everyone age 6 and up that goes into city facilities — less than a month after the city removed an existing mask mandate at libraries, senior centers and other government buildings. Read more about the council’s rationale and the new ordinance, which will be in effect until midnight on March 31.

Contra Costa County says call ambulance 911 only for true emergency

Contra Costa County is telling residents to refrain from calling 911 unless they have a real emergency, as health care providers and emergency ambulance services “are especially impacted because of COVID, flu and other respiratory viruses.” “Several hospitals in the community are reporting critically high level of patients occupying beds, with more than 1,200 inpatients reported throughout the county as of Friday. Hospital emergency departments are similarly impacted,” county officials said in a release. People should use 911 only for health emergencies such as chest pain or abnormally fast heartbeat; fainting or unsconsciousness; severe sudden pain, headache or confusion; numbness, seizures, or difficulty speaking; sudden blindness or vision changes; heavy bleeding or broken bones; drowning or choking incidents; severe burns or poisoning; allergic reactions, especially with difficulty breathing; or someone making a credible threat to harm themselves or someone else.

Congress’ budget plan would kick millions off Medicaid coverage

Millions of people who enrolled in Medicaid during the COVID-19 pandemic could start to lose their coverage on April 1 if Congress passes the $1.7 trillion spending package leaders unveiled Tuesday. The legislation would sunset a requirement of the COVID-19 public health emergency that prohibited states from booting people off Medicaid. The Biden administration has been under mounting pressure to declare the public health emergency over, with 25 Republican governors on Monday asking the president to end it. They cited growing concerns about bloated Medicaid enrollment. Millions are expected to be bumped from the program, which grants health care coverage to nearly 80 million low-income people throughout the country. The federal government will also wind down extra funds given to states for the added enrollees over the next year under the proposal. Advocates have raised concerns about how states will notify enrollees if they are being kicked off the program, a challenge magnified for the country’s poorest people, who may not have a stable home address or internet or phone access. If passed, the spending package would allow states to start kicking people off the program as early as April.

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