What to Know About the Delta Variant in California

Thursday: Los Angeles County public health officials advised wearing masks indoors, but said new restrictions were unlikely.,


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ImagePeople wore masks as they waited in line to enter a Foot Locker on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles in June.
People wore masks as they waited in line to enter a Foot Locker on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles in June.Credit…Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times

Good morning.

Here we go again?

If you’re like me, that was your gut reaction to the news this week that public health officials in Los Angeles County were urging residents to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, amid a troubling rise in Covid-19 cases involving the highly infectious Delta variant.

Californians have been urged to mask up before. And in the past, the advisory has been a precursor to mandates as hospitals filled after dangerous surges of Covid-19. Every time restrictions have been eased before, the virus has reasserted itself.

This time, officials have been emphatic that we’re not on a path to new restrictions and that the guidance is not a directive.

“We don’t want to return to lockdown or more disruptive mandates here,” Barbara Ferrer, the public health director for Los Angeles County, told my colleague Shawn Hubler. “We want to stay on the path we’re on right now, which is keeping community transmission really low.”

So what risk does the Delta variant pose to Californians? Here’s what you need to know:

Should I be worried about the Delta variant if I’m fully vaccinated?

Yes. But not because you’re likely to get sick.

The Delta variant is extremely contagious, scientists say, and may cause more severe illness. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, has described it as “the greatest threat in the U.S. to our attempt to eliminate Covid-19.” Estimates from the C.D.C. suggest that the variant is now responsible for about one in every four cases in the United States. In Los Angeles County, scientists found that it accounted for nearly half of all of the variants genetically sequenced.

However, vaccines work well against the Delta variant.

This means that it’s dangerous largely because it’s likely to spread among people who are unvaccinated.

Do experts think advising residents to wear masks indoors is a good idea — even when the C.D.C. and the state’s department of public health haven’t done so?

Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious disease specialist and clinical professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health, this week told me that he saw Los Angeles County’s move to advise indoor masking as a prudent one, given the trajectory of the Delta variant in other countries.

“If this policy prevents some infections and it doesn’t cause any harm, why not do that?” he said.

As for the inconsistency it creates with guidelines issued by federal and state public health agencies? Dr. Swartzberg says that’s OK.

Los Angeles County’s guidance, he says, gives residents who still feel uneasy a kind of permission to continue taking precautions.

“In California, we’d been spending all these months being scared to death, and then hearing, ‘It’s OK, you don’t have to worry about it, and people who aren’t vaccinated — they’ll wear a mask,'” he said. “Everybody knew that wasn’t going to be the case.”


Shoppers at the Original Farmers Market in Los Angeles last month.Credit…Allison Zaucha for The New York Times

Why is Los Angeles County the only place in California where officials have advised vaccinated people to wear masks inside?

Dr. Swartzberg said he didn’t think the Delta variant was a particular threat in Los Angeles, where huge swaths of the population have already been infected with the virus, and vaccination rates are relatively high.

And although officials in Los Angeles County have implemented some of the nation’s strictest and most enduring pandemic rules, public health officials in the Bay Area have led the way on restrictions. They ordered residents to stay home even before the state did, for instance, and many Bay Area officials kept capacity limits or other rules in place, even as the state would have allowed them to ease those measures based on cases rates and other precautions.

“The biggest surprise was that it was L.A. County and not the Bay Area,” Dr. Swartzberg said.

As The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported, officials there view themselves as having moved into “the long game” phase of vaccination efforts — meaning they’re targeting pockets of residents who aren’t vaccinated with one-on-one consultation — in part to head off the Delta variant.

Dr. Swartzberg added that he was generally more worried about surges in states where relatively few people have been vaccinated; California, he said, was very much headed in the right direction.

“I think in the long run, we’re going to win this,” he said. “This pandemic will end.”

Still, Dr. Ferrer said that there were millions of Californians — including children and Black and Latino essential workers — who had not yet been vaccinated. While efforts to inoculate those residents continue, the mask guidance is a worthwhile precaution, she said.

For more:


Meeting virtually with governors of Western states, President Biden pledged federal assistance as the region grappled with record-breaking heat and a severe drought.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Compiled by Jonathan Wolfe


The Flintstone House in Hillsborough, Calif. The Bay Area suburb sued the owner of the house, saying that she installed dangerous steps, dinosaurs and other Flintstone figurines without necessary permits.Credit…Eric Risberg/Associated Press

Late last week, The Palo Alto Daily Post reported that a long-running legal dispute between the Bay Area suburb of Hillsborough and a homeowner, over her very Flintstone-themed home, had been settled. The house will stay.

Yabba Dabba Doo, indeed.


The modern Stone Age family home.Credit…Eric Risberg/Associated Press

California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: CAtoday@nytimes.com. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.

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