L.A. County’s push for COVID mask rules ignites familiar debate

The continued growth of coronavirus-positive hospital admissions has left Los Angeles County on the brink of a new indoor public mask mandate, a move officials say could help stem the still-widespread transmission, but it has some concerns voiced among business groups and raised questions about its necessity.

Although the number is well below the peak levels of previous waves, hospital admissions have risen. LA County had 1,299 coronavirus-positive patients hospitalized Monday — a 60% increase since the beginning of the month. It’s a similar story in intensive care units, where the latest daily census of 137 is well below previous wave highs but is up nearly 51% since July 1.

While not as high as during the peak of previous waves, the current number of coronavirus-positive patients in intensive care units is about the same as it was when LA County last introduced an indoor mask requirement on July 17, 2021. On that date there were 134 coronavirus positive patients in intensive care units.

Deaths have also increased dramatically but still remain well below the last wave. Over the past month, weekly COVID-19 death rates in LA County have roughly doubled.

The decision LA County public health officials have had to grapple with is whether to implement a mask mandate and when.

There are significant numbers of people who have been infected but are not becoming seriously ill, and among hospitalized patients, patients are generally less ill and ICUs less crowded than in previous waves. The availability of vaccines and treatments, as well as changes in the virus itself, also contribute.

But the rising rate of both cases and coronavirus-positive hospital admissions is worrying local health officials.

In parts of California, infections have reached levels higher than the first Omicron wave. In Los Angeles County, some emergency rooms and community clinics are becoming increasingly overwhelmed, the number of nursing homes that have experienced significant outbreaks has increased dramatically, and more workplaces are experiencing clusters of cases.

And LA County health officials are quite concerned about the increase in weekly deaths, a pattern not seen in other parts of the state.

The purpose of a mask mandate is to prevent significant harm to public health, local officials say after significant warning signs in LA County, which has a large population of vulnerable, low-income people.

Here’s what we know:

Where does LA County say?

LA County on Thursday reported 10.5 new coronavirus-positive hospital admissions per 100,000 residents — enough to put the nation’s most populous county within the high COVID-19 community level defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention became.

Should it remain in that category for the next two Thursdays, a new masking order would be issued with an effective date of July 29.

However, if the county returns to mid-level in any of the next two weeks, the clock would be reset and the earliest date for a new mask order moved to August.

At the end of June, about 20% of the coronavirus-positive patients at LA County’s four public hospitals were being treated for COVID-19 illnesses. In all hospitals – public and private – about 42% of coronavirus-positive patients are screened for COVID-19 disease. Nationwide, the proportion is around 50%.

New data shows the county’s coronavirus case rate continues to climb. It’s now averaging about 6,900 coronavirus cases per day, nearly double the peak rate since last summer’s delta surge and 27% higher than the previous week.

On a per capita basis, LA County’s case rate is 476 cases per week per 100,000 people.

Given the continued increase in cases — and the potential for a corresponding spike in hospitalizations in the coming weeks — “at this point in time, it’s much more likely that we’ll stay on ‘high’ for these two weeks,” Barbara Ferrer, director of public health at the County said last week.

COVID-19 deaths across LA County have risen significantly over the past month, from about 50 a week to between 88 and 100. That’s the first significant increase since the Omicron wave ended in the winter. During the peak of this surge, weekly deaths exceeded 500.

California is seeing about 21,000 coronavirus cases a day, up 16% from the previous week. On a per capita basis, the state reports 368 cases per week per 100,000 residents and about 255 COVID-19 deaths per week.

What would a new mandate look like?

A renewed mask rule would apply indoors to people aged 2 and over in a wide range of venues – including shared office spaces, manufacturing and retail environments, event spaces, restaurants and bars, gyms and yoga studios, educational institutions and children’s programs.

Masks would not be required for those using outdoor areas as the risk of transmission is significantly lower in these environments.

Patrons could also remove masks indoors when actively eating or drinking.

Though the county still hasn’t issued an order, public health officials have strongly recommended the practice for months — and continue to do so.

Ferrer said the time before a possible mandate is being spent reaching out to companies “so they are aware that they need to provide these masks for all of their employees and make sure their employees are properly masked indoors.” and doing their best to send a message to their customers.”

What are the concerns?

Some have questioned the wisdom of LA County’s approach and whether new masking rules would be widely followed.

Maria Salinas, president and chief executive officer of the Los Angeles-area Chamber of Commerce, and Jessica Lall, president and chief executive officer of Central City Assn., a downtown business group, sent Ferrer a letter last week raising concerns.

The mask requirement, they wrote, “puts employees in the increasingly challenging position of enforcing a mandate that many customers no longer want to comply with — or don’t want to.”

“LA’s restaurants, retail stores, museums, amusement parks, sports centers and so many other facilities are working every day to recover from the pandemic while simultaneously confronting labor shortages, supply chain challenges and more,” they wrote. “Companies should not be expected to enforce a mask mandate on top of these ongoing restrictions. Companies cannot shoulder this compliance burden alone as they have had to do so in the past.”

If LA County mandates indoor public masking and no other counties follow suit, “residents and visitors may transfer their spending power to businesses in other parts of Southern California, which would only hurt our local economy,” they wrote.

No other California counties currently have public indoor mask requirements. The State Department of Public Health strongly recommends the practice—but doesn’t require it.

The only other county to reinstate indoor masking during this latest wave, Alameda, lifted it 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. L.A. County’s push for COVID mask rules ignites familiar debate

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