California extends indoor mask mandate until mid-February

California’s indoor mask mandate was extended into mid-February to help prevent the astonishing spike in coronavirus cases from overwhelming hospitals but the state’s health director said Wednesday additional restrictions are not being considered.

The fast-spreading omicron variant of COVID-19 is sidelining exposed or infected health care workers, leading to hospital staffing shortages that could become a bigger problem.

"We are and continue to be concerned about our hospitals," Dr. Mark Ghaly said. "Some facilities are going to be strapped."

California’s confirmed cases have shot up nearly 500% in the last two weeks and hospitalizations have doubled since Christmas to more than 8,000. State models forecast hospitalizations could top 20,000 by early next month, a level nearly as high as last January, when California experienced its deadliest surge.

Public Health officials across the state advised residents to avoid visiting emergency rooms for COVID-19 tests or treatment that could be handled by a family doctor, telemedicine or at urgent care clinics. California had the lowest per-capita case rate in the U.S. in September, but like the rest of the country it’s now experiencing a dramatic rise from the new variant.

As the number of COVID-19 cases surges in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom and state officials are facing criticism for failing to deliver on a promise to provide rapid, at-home tests to all California students and school staff before classrooms reopened after the winter break.

Millions of test kits were sent to families before and during winter break but millions more were not — raising concerns about public school safety now that the state’s 6 million K-12 students are returning to classrooms amid soaring rates of COVID-19 cases.

The California Department of Public Health has said it sent about 2 million rapid tests to school districts at the beginning of December.

A few days before Christmas, Newsom announced a plan to purchase 6 million more test kits for students.

The goal was to ensure students could safely return to campuses "knowing that they have not contracted the disease over the holidays," Newsom said at the time.

About half of those test kits were delivered to local governments and school districts last week. Others never arrived due in part to "distribution challenges" and delays caused by winter storms, California schools chief Tony Thurmond told reporters on Wednesday.

Thurman called the delay "disappointing."

"We have 10,000 schools in the state so it’s a daunting task, but we’ve got to find ways to make it happen in a more accelerated way," he said.

In schools that did get the tests, the results have helped prevent many coronavirus-carrying students and staff from entering campuses.

The Oakland Unified School District said Tuesday that more than 900 students and staff tested positive before the start of school Monday and were staying at home.

About half the cases were detected by testing at school sites during the holidays and the other half from rapid at-home tests that had been distributed to students before and during the break.

Sacramento City Unified School District reported that more than 500 students and staff were quarantined after testing positive for COVID-19. The district said it received about 38,000 test kits in December from the Department of Public Health, which was not enough to cover its 40,000 students and thousands more teachers and staff.

"Unfortunately the district did not receive enough kits for all students as we had expected, therefore distribution was focused on ensuring that younger populations ineligible to receive the vaccine were prioritized," the district said in a statement.

In San Francisco, 406 of about 3,600 teachers were absent for a second day Tuesday after classrooms reopened.

On a typical day prior to the pandemic, between 250 and 300 teachers would be absent for medical or other reasons.

Statistics for student absences after the resumption of classes following winter break for the 49,000-student district were not yet available, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.