Los Angeles County will refrain from reinstating a universal indoor public mask mandate, prompted by improving coronavirus cases and hospitalization rates in the region.
In addition to not implementing the order, which otherwise would have gone into effect on Friday, recent downward trends are fueling some optimism that the months-old COVID wave fueled by hyper-infectious subvariants of Omicron is finally starting to decline.
The renewed face covering order would have been enforced indoors for anyone age 2 or older in a multitude of establishments and locations, including shared offices, manufacturing and retail environments, event spaces, restaurants and bars, gyms and yoga studios, educational environments and children’s programs. .
Masks remain mandatory — as they have for months — in Los Angeles’ indoor transit areas, including in taxis, Ubers and Lyfts and at airports, as well as in healthcare facilities, nursing homes. retirement, prisons, jails, shelters and in environments where businesses or places require it.
County health officials have for months warned that a new universal indoor mask mandate was a possibility.
As the potential implementation date drew closer, the concept came under increasing discussion. intense criticism — local residents, who wonder about its necessity and effectiveness; business groups wondering how this would affect the local economy; and some elected officials, who have expressed concerns about eroding public trust and prompting new backlash.
Originally, it seemed like the criteria for pulling this particular lever was pretty straightforward. If the region reached the high community level for COVID-19, as defined by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and remained there for two consecutive weeks, a new order would be issued.
High community level means that a county is both experiencing a significant amount of community spread and has recently had at least 10 new weekly coronavirus-positive hospitalizations per 100,000 population.
LA County fell into this category July 14th and stayed there for the past week — positioning this Thursday as the pivotal date.
But since last week, Ferrer has indicated the county would be open to a more flexible approach.
“If we see a sustained decrease in cases, or if the rate of hospital admissions approaches the threshold for the medium, we will suspend the implementation of universal indoor masking while we closely monitor our transmission rates” , she told the county board of supervisors on Tuesday.
In a promising trend, the county’s weekly rate of coronavirus-positive hospital admissions has fallen below the community high threshold, according to health department calculations.
On Thursday, the LA County Public Health Department said there were 9.7 new weekly coronavirus-positive hospitalizations per 100,000 population.
LA County’s daily count of positive coronavirus patients at the hospital reached 1,329 on July 20, but has since leveled off – hitting as low as 1,200 on Friday before settling at 1,239 on Wednesday, which represents a decrease of 7% from one week to the next.
As of Wednesday, there were 147 coronavirus-positive intensive care unit patients in LA County, a 4% increase from the previous week.
There are other indications that this latest wave of coronavirus is starting to wane.
As of Thursday afternoon, LA County averaged about 6,100 daily coronavirus cases over the previous week, down 9% from the previous week’s average of 6,700 daily cases. Per capita, the latest rate is 425 cases per week per 100,000 population. A case rate of 100 or more is considered high.
The California COVID Assessment Toolreleased by the state Department of Public Health, estimated the effective transmission rate in LA County was 0.98 on Thursday, indicating that the spread of COVID-19 is likely stable at this point.
Cases are also starting to fall across the state. Data released Tuesday – the most recent available – shows California averaged 17,000 cases per day last week, down 17% from the previous week. On a per capita basis, that’s about 308 cases per week per 100,000 people, and while the level is falling, it’s still considered high.
The San Francisco Bay Area is reporting 267 cases per week per 100,000 people, down 17% from the previous week, also still at the high level.
Despite recent declines, LA County is still grappling with an immense amount of transmission. The latest case average remains well above the peak of last summer’s delta surge, and officials note the tally is likely a significant undercount due to the widespread use of home testing.
The decline could be attributed to a number of factors.
As coronavirus cases have spiked in recent weeks and hospitalizations have worsened, a number of LA County businesses have tightened COVID-19 restrictions, with some canceling or postponing gatherings or moving them outdoors .
About a month ago, hospitalization levels exceeded a threshold that triggered the Television and film industry to resume some interior masking requirements. Moving its in-person summer tour to virtual sessions, the Television Critics Assn. cited growing concerns about the outbreak, fueled by the hyper-contagious BA.5 subvariant, and the potential mask mandate in LA County as the reason “shows in production can’t or won’t break the COVID bubbles” and “producers, writers, talent, and publicists are unwilling to appear in person.
It’s also possible that BA.5 is starting to run out of people to infect. For the week ending Saturday, 82% of estimated coronavirus cases nationwide were from Sub-variant BA.5, a breathtaking rate of growth; just two months ago, BA.5 accounted for less than 3% of estimated cases. And unlike the national push dominated by the BA.2 and BA.2.12.1 sub-variants, which jumped straight into the wave fueled by BA.5, there doesn’t seem to be an easily visible successor to BA.5 – At least for the moment.
One of the reasons this latest wave has proven to be so long-lasting is that it is possible to be re-infected within weeks.
Still, many infected people are now suffering from relatively mild symptoms, and LA County hospitals are nowhere near as stressed as they were during previous waves of the pandemic.
Most coronavirus-positive patients hospitalized throughout the county are not being treated for COVID-19 disease, but have tested positive when seeking care for another reason.
The relatively milder nature of this wave – a development manager and experts attributed to high levels of vaccine coverage, the availability of therapies and tests, and general changes in the nature of the coronavirus itself – has been at the forefront of arguments against a new mandate of mask.
“I think now that we’re seeing fewer people getting serious cases of COVID, they just don’t really believe this mandate is necessary,” Supervisor Janice Hahn said this week.
Ferrer, however, said she believes a renewed order will provide an added layer of protection for workers, shoppers, customers and bosses — as well as the county’s most vulnerable residents.
“Nobody is suggesting that we have to wear masks forever; rather than [there] are likely to be short periods of time when it makes sense,” she said this week.
Nor is that to say that the latest wave hasn’t made itself felt in other ways. Dr Christina Ghaly, director of county health services, said this week that due to the high level of community transmission, a number of hospital staff are infected and unable to work.
“In hospitals, that means beds are closed or it may take longer to be seen in an emergency department,” she said Tuesday. “There are a number of ways in which there is an impact on the facilities.”
Coronavirus-positive patients also keep emergency departments and urgent care centers busy — even if those people ultimately don’t need to stay in hospital, according to Ghaly.
“We also see this backup in the [Emergency Medical Services] system with long ‘wall times’ – waiting times for ambulances in emergency departments,” she said. “It has a negative impact on the system as a whole because ambulances cannot return to the streets.”
Although cases are trending down and hospitalizations are relatively stable, the same cannot be said for deaths, the ultimate lagging indicator of the spread of the coronavirus.
As of Wednesday, LA County was recording 108 COVID-19 deaths per week, a 21% week-over-week increase. A month ago, LA County was reporting about 50 deaths per week.
Nearly 4,400 people have died from COVID-19 countywide in the first half of this year. That toll is twice the average number of deaths over six months from drug overdoses, flu and car crashes combined, according to county health figures.