APPLE VALLEY (May 27, 2021) — Amid the easing of mask mandates across the country, Providence St. Mary Medical Center has launched a campaign to encourage High Desert residents to “stay vigilant” and “show compassion” by continuing to mask up, especially for those unvaccinated.
“The more we relax the mask-wearing practices, the higher the likelihood of an uptick in respiratory illnesses including the flu and COVID-19,” said Providence St. Mary Chief Medical Officer Dr. Charlie Abraham.
Dr. Abraham spoke on Monday during a private launch event for the hospital’s “Mask Up With Pride: Honoring Our Healing Heritage” campaign.
Supported by a grant from the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians (SMBMI), the Mask Up Campaign is a branch of Providence St. Mary’s larger COVID-19 Prevention Campaign, which is currently underway.
“A significant proportion of our community members are still not fully vaccinated, which tells me that the sorely needed masking-up is more timely than ever before,” Dr. Abraham said.
As of Thursday, 40.2% of eligible San Bernardino County residents have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the county dashboard. That number in the High Desert communities is closer to 30%, the data shows.
“Even though we are opening up, we're still in the orange level, which means that the only way we're getting out of this is if we mask and vaccinate,” said Providence St. Mary Chief Executive Randall Castillo. “We have to follow the science.”
The “orange level,” which San Bernardino County has been in since late February, is the “moderate” risk level according to the state’s four-tiered reopening plan, and means that some indoor business operations are open with modifications.
Castillo also shared that Providence St. Mary has fully vaccinated more than 42,000 local residents since it opened the High Desert’s first mass vaccination site at Our Lady of the Desert Catholic Church on February 16.
But as Dr. Abraham pointed out, there’s still a possibility to transmit the disease even if you’re vaccinated, which is why he recommends continued mask-wearing around those you don’t know and those who are unvaccinated.
“Vaccination of those younger than 12 years of age will be awhile, so masking will remain a safe and effective practice, and there are numerous studies that address its value,” Dr. Abraham said. “I think keeping a social distance and putting a mask on shows a sign of compassion and I think it’s still the right thing to do.”
San Bernardino County Public Health Officer Dr. Michael Sequeira concurred, stating that masking should continue until the county has reached herd immunity by vaccinating 70% of the population.
In regard to California’s plans to lift capacity and distancing restrictions for most businesses and activities on June 15, Dr. Sequeira explained that “in public health, you have to gauge the attitude of the community.”
“Our community could not tolerate social distancing anymore,” he said, citing the financial losses of school and business closures. “We had to open up.”
The state also plans to allow fully-vaccinated residents to go without a mask in most indoor settings beginning June 15. Concerning this, Dr. Sequeira said that health officials needed to motivate vaccine-hesitant people to get immunized while “emphasizing the benefits of wearing a mask.”
A major decrease in other communicable diseases has proven to be another benefit of mask-wearing, Sequeira said, noting that the county’s influenza rate is the lowest it has been in the last 25 years.
Masking up has also become increasingly important because of the increase in variant cases of COVID-19, officials said. Last week, 62% of the county’s positive cases were British variants, 30% were Bay Area variants and 5% were Brazilian, Sequeira said, as compared to 0% for all three around the beginning of the year.
Dr. Sequeira called masks “a symbol of our commitment” to beating COVID-19, while Dr. Abraham suggested “masking could become a part of our culture.”
Regina Weatherspoon-Bell, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Dreamers, Visionaries and Leaders (DVL), served as the lead for the Mask Up Campaign. She worked with other local leaders and creative talent to produce videos and graphic design pieces that reflect the High Desert’s diverse communities.
“Masks have been a part of our civilization since the beginning of time, and we’ve used them as a symbol of pride to say where we came from,” Weatherspoon-Bell said. “We wanted to make that the focus as opposed to making some type of statement that would divide us.”
Speaking on behalf of the SMBMI, Strategic Philanthropy Manager Alberto Jasso said that one of the tribe’s cultural values is to be good stewards of the land, the environment and the people who live in the tribe’s ancestral lands.
“When we learned about this opportunity working with St. Mary Medical Center, we knew we had to find some way to support this initiative because it’s very important,” Jasso said. “We want to make sure that we all continue to come together to find different ways of how we can continue to build resilient and healthy communities.”
Providence St. Mary was awarded a $10,000 grant from SMBMI for the Mask Up Campaign. The overarching COVID-19 Prevention Campaign was funded by a $120,000 grant from the Public Health Institute and is aimed at “promoting behavioral change that reduces the spread of coronavirus in the High Desert’s vulnerable communities,” according to Project Manager Charity Lindsey.
To follow the outreach efforts of the COVID-19 Prevention Campaign and Providence St. Mary Medical Center, visit www.providence.org/OurShotHD or find @StMaryAppleValley on Facebook.