Los Angeles County will not reinstate a universal mandate for indoor public masks after marked improvements in the region’s coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.
Aside from the order sinking, which would have been in effect Friday, recent downward trends fuel some optimism that the months-old COVID wave fueled by hyperinfectious Omicron subvariants is finally beginning to abate.
“We’re on the decline right now,” Barbara Ferrer, director of LA County Public Health, said Thursday. “We are happy to see this. It would be a welcome relief if this surge has reached its peak.”
Based on available data, no mandatory masking measure is needed in the near future, she said.
“It’s reasonable to assume that the recent drop in cases we’ve seen will lead to a continued decline in hospitalizations in the coming weeks,” Ferrer said. “While there is no way to predict the future, the case and hospitalization status suggest there is less transmission.”
A renewed face-to-face order would have been implemented indoors for anyone aged 2 or older in a wide range of establishments and locations, including shared office space, manufacturing and retail environments, event spaces, restaurants and bars, gyms and yoga studios, educational institutions and children’s programs.
Masks will continue to be required — as they have for months — in LA County public transit areas, including taxis, Ubers, Lyfts, and airports, as well as in healthcare facilities, nursing homes, prisons, jails, shelters, and environments where businesses or locations require this.
County health officials have been warning for months that a new universal mandate for an indoor mask could be a possibility if hospitalizations rose past a certain point.
As the potential implementation date approached, the concept became the subject of increasingly fierce criticism – from residents, questioning its necessity and effectiveness; from business groups wondering how this would affect the local economy; and from a number of elected officials, who expressed concerns about eroding public confidence and fueling further declines.
Under LA County’s plan, if the region reached the high COVID-19 community level, as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and remains there for three consecutive Thursdays, a new mask order would be issued.
A high COVID-19 community level means a county is experiencing a significant amount of community spread and has recently recorded at least 10 new weekly coronavirus-positive hospitalizations for every 100,000 residents.
LA County entered that category on July 14 and stayed there last week — positioning Thursday as the pivotal date.
But coronavirus cases started to decline last week, and new hospitalizations also fell. LA County used its own data to calculate new weekly coronavirus-positive hospitalizations as 9.7 for every 100,000 residents — just below the threshold to activate the mask mandate. The CDC charged a rate of 10.7, but Ferrer said the federal agency’s data is older than the county’s.
It remains unclear whether LA County will continue to pursue a potential mask mandate if there are three future consecutive Thursdays at the high COVID-19 community level.
“We’ve changed the frameworks numerous times, in recognition of the changing trajectory of the pandemic,” Ferrer said. “We will continue to be aware of what the data is telling us about the most useful frameworks we can use as we assess how to keep each other safe.”
On Thursday afternoon, LA County had an average of about 5,900 cases of coronavirus per day for the past week, a 13% drop from the previous week’s average of 6,800. Per capita, the latest rate is 409 cases per week for every 100,000 residents. A case rate of 100 or more is considered high.
Some LA County hospitals noticed an increase in hospital admissions this month, but those numbers have fallen.
Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood was one of them. dr. Paryus Patel, the facility’s chief physician, said he saw a surge of cases in June before falling again, followed by another spike during the July 4 holiday.
The facility saw three to five people hospitalized a day for COVID-19, a number that rose to 12 to 15 people after the holiday weekend. Those admissions have fallen, but people need to remain vigilant, Patel said.
“We are not 100% immune to exposure,” he said.
Patel also said young Latino patients and older black residents were among the COVID-19 patients during the most recent wave. He said more black patients are infected and often come to the hospital with pre-existing conditions that make their disease worse, including heart failure, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Watts HealthCare Corp. emergency department. has recently seen more sick patients with COVID-19 symptoms, as well as asymptomatic people testing positive for the virus. dr. Oliver Brooks, the facility’s medical director, said he’s surprised he hasn’t seen a higher level of illness, such as shortness of breath, pneumonia, dehydration or fatigue.
“I think that’s another reason we’re seeing a higher number of cases — because people also hear, ‘Oh, even if you get COVID, you’ll be fine,’ so that’s all a little bit of eating together,” Brooks said. .
Brooks said the high number of cases in recent weeks is likely caused by a combination of the ultra-contagious BA.5 subvariant and pandemic fatigue, in which people are tired of wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands.
People generally spread more aerosol these days by hugging, talking and singing with people, he said.
“It’s summer, and even though people are outside more and it’s less likely to spread [there], people are getting more sociable,” Brooks added. Plus, “they’re also more social together inside, so they’re more like each other… You see, people don’t keep social distancing — and I honestly think that’s the most important thing.”
While the decision not to proceed with the mask mandate was based primarily on hospital and case rates, Ferrer said her teams analyzed additional data that overwhelmingly supported a recent decline in transmission.
The weekly number of workplaces reporting clusters of coronavirus cases is 399, down from the previous week’s tally of 429. Cases in the province’s poorest areas fell 5% over the past week. And the California COVID Assessment Tool, published by the State Department of Public Health, estimated the effective transmission rate in LA County as of Thursday to be 0.98 — indicating that the spread of COVID-19 is likely to be stable at this point.
While the viral concentration in the wastewater from two of LA County’s largest sewage treatment plants remained high, Ferrer said progress was clear, with the facility recording a decline in the presence of the virus for the southern and eastern parts of the county, and which is beginning to stabilize for the city of Los Angeles.
She did add that the number of outbreaks in skilled nursing homes has increased slightly.
The step back from masking means that the soon-to-be-started traditional school year will likely be mask-optional, just like it was in the spring. The province’s announcement elicited a tweet of support of LA Schools Sut. Alberto Carvalho.
“The right decision at the right time, according to the right science,” he tweeted.
Opinions among students, parents and school staff remain divided, with some families fearing the prospect of mandatory masking returning. Others would have been relieved as the number of cases remains high and the country’s second-largest school system has halted weekly tests for coronavirus infections.
Ferrer continues to strongly recommend masking indoors, including in schools.
Despite the recent improvements, LA County still struggles with a massive amount of transmission. The latest case average remains well above last summer’s Delta peak, and officials note the tally is likely a significant undercount due to the widespread use of home testing.
The declines can be attributed to a number of factors. As the widespread spread has become apparent in recent weeks, some people are increasingly putting on masks and taking other precautions.
It remains unclear whether BA.5 is running out of people to infect, Ferrer said.
With the current prevalence of cases, in a group of 50 people, there’s a 60% to 70% chance that someone will be infected, she said. “I would strongly advise everyone to keep their mask on.”
“Any infection creates a potential chance of experiencing not just immediate symptoms of COVID, but long-term COVID,” Ferrer said. “And repeated COVID infections can also increase the risk of other serious health problems for some. … Given the unknowns, we strongly recommend taking steps to prevent contamination.”
While cases are declining and hospitalizations are relatively flat, the same cannot be said for deaths, the ultimate lagging indicator of the spread of the coronavirus.
As of Thursday, LA County recorded 108 COVID-19 deaths per week, up 16% on a weekly basis. A month ago, LA County reported 56 deaths a week.
Ferrer called it “discouraging misinformation” when people say no one dies from COVID. “This ignores the very real suffering and pain of those who lose relatives to COVID, and it ignores the brutal death rate still associated with this pandemic,” Ferrer said.
In the first half of this year, nearly 4,400 people across the country died from COVID-19. That toll is twice the typical six-month average number of deaths from drug overdoses, the flu and car accidents combined, according to county health data.
Times staff writer Howard Blume contributed to this report.