Los Angeles County has reached a milestone that, for now, should further defuse the tense debate over a controversial public health policy — mask mandates.
The county has moved from high to medium coronavirus transmission, health officials announced Thursday, Aug. 11, meaning the spread of COVID-19 has slowed in recent weeks. It also means arguments about whether the county should have reimposed an indoor mask mandate in late July are moot, at least until coronavirus measures approach the high transmission threshold again.
Updated numbers from the CDC put the county’s hospitalization rate at 9.9 per 100,000 people, just enough to fall back into the “average” category.
However, any optimism opponents of the mandate might have should perhaps be tempered by the ebb and flow of the measures, which have been a hallmark of the pandemic since its onset nearly 2½ years ago.
Just three weeks ago, it seemed certain that local public health officials would revive sweeping indoor masking requirements, as the county faced a surge in hospitalizations and new infections spurred by undercurrents. faster-spreading coronavirus variants. Talk of resurrecting the indoor mask mandate has sparked weeks of drama, drawing opposition from business leaders and some public officials.
But the number of coronavirus patients in LA County hospitals has fallen slightly in recent weeks — falling below 1,100 on Thursday, according to the state database — and the number of new cases has plateaued, easing concerns about the ability of local health care teams to follow treatment. requests. Local health care teams also have additional tools – a new vaccine and additional treatment options.
The return to mid-level allows the county to catch some breath, but authorities may soon be grappling with similarly tough decisions in the coming weeks as millions of students return to classrooms. and for families to gather for Labor Day weekend activities – both of which could fuel the workload again.
The Los Angeles Unified School District will resume classes on Monday, August 15, with relaxed COVID-19 protocols. Most notably, the district will no longer require weekly monitoring tests for all students and staff. Instead, testing will only be required for people with symptoms or people who have been exposed to the virus.
Masking also remains strongly recommended indoors at LAUSD campuses. The district’s vaccination mandate for college students is suspended until at least next year.
In mid-July, the county entered the “high” virus activity level as defined by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer and others have been closely monitoring hospital numbers and admission rates. In a timeline set by public health officials, the county was to reimpose an indoor mask-wearing mandate on July 29, based on those numbers.
On the eve of that decision, however, Ferrer pressed the “pause” button to revive the indoor mask requirements, citing closer scrutiny by experts of virus trends which she said indicated that the county was about to improve the statistics that would. lead to restrictions being lifted soon anyway.
Although many counties landed in the CDC’s “high” penetration category, LA County was the only area actively considering a mandate for residents to wear masks in most public and indoor places.
It turns out those projections came true – albeit a bit later than expected.
Last week, the county narrowly missed being moved back into the “average” category, posting an average daily rate of new virus-related hospital admissions of 10.1 per 100,000 population; moving to the “medium” category requires the rate to fall below 10. The CDC updates its numbers every Thursday.
But the county got to the average level this week.
The move from high to medium will have no practical effect for residents, since the county has opted against the indoor mask mandate. Health officials had indicated the mandate would be imposed after the county spent two weeks in the upper category, but they waited given the drop in the number of hospitalizations and COVID-19 infections.
Masks are still required in certain settings, including health care facilities, homeless shelters, on board transit vehicles and in transit centers, as well as in correctional facilities.
There were 1,098 COVID-19 positive patients in county hospitals Thursday, according to state figures, compared to 1,151 on Tuesday and 1,162 on Saturday. Of those patients, 125 were being treated in intensive care units, up slightly from 122 on Wednesday.
County officials said about 43% of COVID-19-positive patients admitted to hospitals were actually admitted for illness related to the virus, while the rest were admitted for other reasons, with some not having only learned they were infected when they were tested at the hospital.
The county reported another 4,345 cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, bringing the cumulative total for the entire pandemic to 3,347,143. Another 15 virus-related deaths were reported, bringing the total death toll to 32,903.
The daily rate of people testing positive for the virus over seven days was 12.3%.
The county recorded 103 coronavirus deaths in the week ending Wednesday, a steep decline in recent weeks.
As public debate widens over the possible return of restrictions, county officials are still strongly recommending wearing high-quality face coverings in public places.
In particular, Ferrer this week urged parents and students to take precautions against the spread of the virus when school resumes. Over the past month, 9% of all COVID-19 cases in the county have been in children between the ages of 5 and 17, according to the Department of Public Health.
Some critics have questioned the need for a warrant, suggesting instead that a voluntary appeal would raise awareness about the spread of the virus and encourage people to make their own decisions without placing an enforcement burden on small businesses.
An alliance of local business groups called the restrictions “onerous” and a burden on businesses that would be forced to enforce the rule.
While officials have admitted children often suffer only mild illness from the virus, the long-term effects of the infection remain unknown and nearly 1,900 children have been hospitalized with the virus during the pandemic.
“This is not a debate about choosing between life and livelihood,” said Tracy Hernandez, founding CEO of the Los Angeles County Business Federation, or BizFed, an alliance of more than 200 business organizations.
“The economic impacts of the pandemic must be monitored alongside the public health and social impacts,” she added. “It is possible to protect people, jobs and our sense of community by compromising instead of wringing our hands.”
Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger has always opposed such rules.
“I have not seen any empirical data that conclusively shows that masking mandates make a difference in decreasing or stopping COVID-19 transmission rates,” Barger wrote last month in a public statement. “An analysis of the Alameda County masking mandate in June 2022 actually concluded that it had no significant impact compared to surrounding counties that did not impose a masking mandate. Alameda County dropped that mandate after just three weeks.
Barger said she doesn’t oppose mask-wearing, saying it “makes a lot of sense for people who want or need an extra layer of protection,” but opposes “a mandate of unique masking”.
The two local cities that run their own independent health departments — Long Beach and Pasadena — said last month they would not install such mandates because the metrics in those cities had not deteriorated to the same degree as the county figures.
A handful of local towns, including El Segundo and Beverly Hills, said they would not enforce those rules if the county reinstated them. Torrance City Council also said this week it would oppose any future mask mandates – and also issued a vote of no confidence in Ferrer.
Ferrer has repeatedly pointed out in recent briefings that studies have proven masks reduce transmission rates. She called mask-wearing an easy and “sensitive” step that can protect against the spread of the virus, especially in indoor settings.
Medical professionals have also debated the need for a warrant.
“From my perspective,” Dr. Thomas Yadegar, medical director of critical care at Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center, said in a previous interview, “the mandate probably should have gone into effect a few weeks ago.”
His unit has seen an “obvious” increase in the number of patients with COVID-19, Yadegar said – as well as an increase in outpatient visits, emergency room visits and hospitalizations.
Dr. Bahman Chavoshan, director of respiratory care at St. Mary Medical Center Long Beach, said he believes masking is key to limiting the spread of infection. But he also understands the county’s decision to forfeit another term.
“If you mandate it, there may be backlash,” Chavoshan said. “But if you make it voluntary, with enough information for people to understand its importance, I think that’s a better approach.”
City News Service and The Associated Press contributed to this report