How close is L.A. County to a new COVID mask mandate?

In what has now become a pattern during the pandemic, coronavirus cases are increasing as we enter the holiday season in LA County.

It’s far from clear how big a potential winter flood could be. Some officials are optimistic the wave won’t be as bad as it has been in previous seasons.

However, officials are warning that continued spikes in COVID-19 could result in a return to an indoor mask mandate.

Here’s what we know:

What are the COVID numbers in LA?

CASES: LA County’s coronavirus case rate has been rising since late October and is now three times the fall low. In the week ended Thursday, LA County recorded 2,710 cases per day — or 188 cases per week per 100,000 people. A fall rate of 100 or more is considered high. The fall low was a weekly rate of 60 set on October 21st.

HOSPITALIZATIONS: According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 1,196 new admissions of coronavirus-positive patients in the week ending Tuesday — three times the number in early November. That’s 11.9 new weekly hospital admissions per 100,000 population. A rate greater than 10 is enough to send LA County to the middle COVID-19 community level.

DEATHS: The COVID-19 death rate remains stable at about 60 a week in LA County. But as cases continue to rise, so will eventually deaths.

What would it take to enforce a new indoor mask mandate?

Should hospital measures worsen, LA County could be on track to return a mandatory mask mandate in indoor public spaces.

To get there, the fall rate would have to exceed 200 per week per 100,000 population. LA County could reach that threshold next week.

But before a mask requirement is triggered, the percentage of hospital beds occupied by coronavirus-positive patients would also need to exceed 10%, a level reached only during the previous two COVID-19 winter waves, the deadliest of the pandemic. The current reading is 5.6%, up around 2% in early November.

What would the timing of a mask requirement look like?

It would take several weeks of rising numbers to reach the trigger point based on current trends. Whether that will happen remains uncertain.

Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said she doesn’t expect LA County to match the increased hospitalization rate anytime soon. “I don’t think it will be there next week. I would be very surprised,” Ferrer said. “It would mean that hospital admissions are increasing really, really fast, much faster than we normally see.”

If LA County meets all of the benchmarks to trigger a new mask order, officials could decide to implement the rule a few weeks later, Ferrer said.

What happened last summer when COVID cases surged?

Over the summer, LA County reached the cusp to initiate a new mask regulation in response to rising cases and hospitalizations, setting a countdown for the order to go into effect two weeks later, in late July. But that order never materialized as case and hospitalization rates fell just in time.

“We need to look at the rate of increase and what we’re seeing in relation to that to decide what that time frame would be like,” Ferrer said. “And then, as we’ve done in the past, once we see the numbers showing us transmission has gone down and concerns are lower in our hospitals… we would go ahead and lift the mask order.”

What do experts say about the COVID-19 winter forecast?

The rising cases have raised concern and urged people to take precautionary measures.

But there is also a certain optimism.

Some of the upsides this year compared to previous seasons are an updated COVID-19 booster shot that’s fairly well matched to the circulating strains of the coronavirus, ample supplies of rapid home tests, and a general awareness of actions that can be taken to avoid illness, including masking in indoor public spaces, staying home when ill, and improving airflow by hosting outdoor events, opening windows, and turning on air filter units.

There’s even some promising news about the relentless emergence of new coronavirus subvariants, none of which raised alarm bells as dramatically as the original Omicron strain did when it burst onto the world stage last Thanksgiving.

But COVID-19 has proven difficult to predict. How close is L.A. County to a new COVID mask mandate?

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