Sustained jumps in cases and hospitalizations fueled by the hyperinfectious BA.5 subvariant propelled Los Angeles County into the high COVID-19 Thursday at the community level, a postponement that could trigger a new indoor public mask mandate by the end of this month unless conditions improve.
Health officials have long said the county is nearing metrics for a new mask measure, and those warnings are now closer than ever as the recent wave of COVID-19 continues to sweep through the region.
Should LA County remain at the high COVID-19 community level defined by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the next two Thursdays, a new masking order would be issued with a projected effective date of July 29.
But if LA County falls back to mid-level in any of the next two weeks, the clock would be reset and the earliest date for a new mask order would be moved to August.
A renewed mandate would apply to individuals ages 2 and older in a familiar variety of settings and venues — including shared office spaces, manufacturing and retail environments, event spaces, restaurants and bars, educational facilities and children’s programs, Barbara Ferrer, the county’s director of public health, told the board earlier this week with.
Importantly, however, masks “are not required for those using outdoor areas, as the risk of transmission is significantly lower in an outdoor area than indoors,” she added on Tuesday.
Patrons could also remove their masks indoors when actively eating or drinking.
The CDC’s COVID-19 Community Level is a three-tier measurement of coronavirus transmission and hospital impact. For counties in the worst category on this scale, high, the CDC recommends indoor public masking.
Being at the high community level means LA County has seen at least 10 new weekly coronavirus-positive hospitalizations per 100,000 residents. The latest rate was 10.5 new weekly hospitalizations per 100,000 residents, according to the county health department.
That’s an increase from a rate of 8.4 the previous week, according to the county. (Last week’s combined rate for LA and Orange counties, released by the CDC, was 9.7.)
LA County has not been at high community level since late February.
As of Wednesday, 1,202 coronavirus-positive patients were hospitalized across the country — more than double the number a month ago.
And the rate of increase has become steeper, with daily patient counts up 52% since late June.
This renewed stream of hospital admissions is fueled by persistently high transmission fueled by highly infectious Omicron subvariants, most notably BA.5. Los Angeles County has averaged about 6,400 coronavirus cases a day for the past week — the highest rate since early February.
The number of COVID-19 deaths reported weekly has also doubled over the past month, from 50 to about 100.
“With cases, hospitalizations and deaths rising, we have an advantage in using all the mitigation measures at our disposal to best protect ourselves and those most at risk,” Ferrer said.
Officials say BA.5, believed to be the dominant version of the nation’s circulating coronavirus, is not only more contagious than previous versions but has also increased the risk of reinfection – perhaps just weeks after a previous case .
According to federal estimates, BA.5 accounted for 65% of the country’s coronavirus cases in the week ending Saturday, a staggering increase from a month ago when it accounted for 17% of cases.
There are still a number of settings where mask requirements are in place, including healthcare and long-term care facilities, emergency shelters, refrigeration centers, jails and prisons, and workplaces where a coronavirus outbreak is occurring. Unlike the state as a whole, LA County also requires face coverings on board public transit or in closed transportation hubs like airports.
However, should the county go ahead with a broader indoor mask mandate, it will do so on its own. No other California counties currently have public indoor mask requirements, although the state Department of Public Health strongly recommends – but does not require – the practice.
As a result, some have questioned the prudence of LA County’s approach and whether the new rules would be widely followed. The only other county to reinstate indoor masking during this latest wave, Alameda, rescinded the order three weeks later, and the effectiveness of that short-lived mandate has been called into question.
However, some experts have noted that Alameda County’s mask mandate was the only time a lone county in the San Francisco Bay Area enacted a mask order without other major counties doing the same. As a result, the order received significantly less attention in the region, affecting just 1.6 million residents out of the Bay Area’s 7.7 million residents.
In contrast, an LA County order would immediately affect 10 million residents, plus or minus the roughly 600,000 residents of Long Beach and Pasadena. These two cities have their own health departments and can independently decide whether to conform to county rules.
Ferrer pointed to studies suggesting that universal masking commands have been effective in reducing virus transmission.
One published in the journal Health Affairs in February said that of more than 400 U.S. counties, between March and October 2020, those with mask mandates had 35% lower coronavirus case rates than those without.
A second, released by the CDC in March, said school districts in Arkansas with universal mask requirements had a 23% lower incidence of coronavirus cases from August through October 2021 than districts without mask regulations.
And another February CDC release said that consistently using a quality face covering — like an N95 or KN95 respirator — in indoor public places was associated with an 83% lower chance of testing positive for the coronavirus compared to those who didn’t wear a mask.
“For many, this will feel like a step backwards,” Ferrer said Tuesday of the possible masking order. “It might make more sense to recognize that we have a very rich toolkit to help us manage the uncertainty of how this pandemic will unfold. All the tools we have can help us to complete the different challenges. When transmission is very high, universal indoor masking makes a lot of sense as it helps us reduce the risk.”
This wouldn’t be the first time LA County has acted alone. A year ago — on July 17, 2021 — the county again enacted a universal mask mandate in response to the Delta Variant, which lasted through March 4. A number of other California counties followed LA County’s example in the weeks that followed.
Local health officials in other parts of the state have not said they are considering new mask regulations, and some have said they do not expect to implement new regulations stricter than those required by the state.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-07-14/l-a-county-on-track-for-new-indoor-covid-mask-mandate L.A. County on track for new indoor COVID mask mandate