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San Antonio Officials Recommend All Residents Use Face Masks Regardless Of Vaccination Status

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Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
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San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg (left) talks with San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh before a Wednesday press conference updating public health advisories on mask usage in Bexar County.

Face masks are now recommended for all indoor public settings across Bexar County under a new health advisory from San Antonio Metropolitan Health District. It follows similar guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this week.

In the health advisory, mask usage is strongly encouraged — but not mandated —for all residents above two years of age. It also encourages all persons —teachers, students and staff — in schools to wear masks and keep at least 3 feet of distance.

The City had relaxed its own face mask requirements for city facilities in June shortly after the CDC said it was safe for vaccinated people to go without them in most settings. Wearing a face mask along with other city and county officials during a press conference, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg urged the public to use masks.

“We're all in this together and wearing a mask is a step that we can all take to help each other in our community. It's within our power to slow the spread by working together,” Nirenberg said. “And you can do your part by getting vaccinated and wearing a mask in an indoor public setting. As we try to get these transmissions under control, vaccines remain our best defense against COVID-19.”

New data shows that the highly contagious delta variant can be attributed to 88% of new cases found in Bexar County. The 7-day average is now at 589 cases per day when it was at around 120 daily cases earlier this month. The positivity rate increased by 3.5% over the last week and now sits at 17%. It was under 5% about three weeks ago. Hospitalizations have reached 629 total patients, an increase of 44 people in just one day and nearly 500 in just a couple of weeks.

Among those with illness severe enough to be hospitalized, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said 95% of people in the hospital did not get a vaccination.

“That means 600 out of that 629 did not get their vaccination. They're putting themselves in great jeopardy,” Wolff said. “Those of us that have both our shots, yes, we can get COVID. Yes, we may be able to pass it on, but the odds are tremendously against us that we would end up in the hospital like the unvaccinated people.”

Vaccinations are not available for people younger than 12 years old. Approximately 76% of the eligible population is vaccinated with at least one dose, while 63% are fully vaccinated. That data however, does not take into account the number of children under age 12.

Dr. Junda Woo, the public health authority for Metro Health, asked those waiting for full FDA approval to not wait any longer.

“If you've been waiting for final FDA authorization, the vaccine has the emergency use authorization because we're in an emergency and the virus is moving faster than the FDA approval process can,” she said.

The City and Bexar County are not able to mandate the use of face masks under the orders of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott who has repeatedly said that the use of masks is a personal choice. The state has also barred school districts from implementing their own mask mandates.

Nirenberg said he and Wolff will appeal to the governor in a letter asking for government employers to require the use of face masks and for schools to enforce face mask usage as well.

“As you know students younger than 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination so it's on all of us to protect those young people in our community. The unvaccinated population of students deserves that protection afforded by wearing masks,” the mayor said.

They’ll also ask for state assistance in Bexar County’s hospitals.

“We need to flatten this curve because the hospital capacity is quickly reaching its breaking point if we don’t intervene and so we need some support for supplementary staff,” Nirenberg said. “We see that support being needed quickly on the horizon.”

Eric Epley, CEO of the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council which oversees trauma and emergency care for 22 counties said the health care system is stressed as health care workers handle the increase of COVID-19 patients alongside other patients who are coming in for other medical needs.

“The staff are weary and all of this is preventable,” he said. “I mean, that's the tough part of this ... it felt like we were kind of out of it and putting this behind us as a terrible chapter in our community and our nation and to be back in this fight and wearing masks again inside today is very frustrating and worse to see people needlessly dying. We didn’t have the vaccine before. Now we have it and people aren’t taking it.”

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