As expected for a while now, LA County moved yesterday into the “High” community level for COVID-19, as defined by the CDC. And that means, as LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer announced yesterday, that if we remain at this level for two consecutive weeks, it will trigger a return to mandatory masking rules for indoor spaces, including workplaces, schools, events, and more. The return to mandatory indoor masking would start on July 29.
According to Ferrer, however, while the two-week notice before the new masking rules take effect will help businesses and other locations prepare for the change, it’s still highly recommended that individuals start wearing masks indoors now. There were 8,535 new cases reported yesterday, and our daily average is more than 6,400 cases per day over the last week (both of which, Ferrer said, are “serious undercounts” because so many people now rely on home test kits). Hospitalizations also rose from 989 to 1,202 over the last week, and there were about 14 deaths per day. So “we have a ton of transmission right now,” Ferrer said, advising residents “don’t wait two weeks to put that mask back on.”
Ferrer said the trend lines right now are looking much like those from the Delta surge from summer (the humps at the left-hand side of the one-year trend graph below), when we also had universal indoor masking. But our case numbers right now (the rising green line at the right side of the graph) are already higher than last summer’s and still rising. Hospitalizations are still lower than last summer, Ferrer said, but because they tend to follow increases in new cases, they are also likely to rise more in the coming weeks.
Given these circumstances, Ferrer explained that new indoor masking rules will not be a step back in our progress with the pandemic, but simply a way to do all we can to “layer on protections to respond to the situation at hand” – which is the rapid spread of the highly transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 strains of the Omicron variant, which are evading immunity from both vaccines and prior infections. BA.4 and BA.5 now account for 62% of all cases in LA County, Ferrer reported, which is double their percentage just two weeks ago.
Ferrer said it’s possible that the virus could slow down enough in the next two weeks to postpone the new indoor mask mandate, but it’s also not likely to happen, since the thresholds are based on hospitalizations, which lag behind increases in cases…and cases are still rising quickly. So it’s unlikely that we’ll see hospitalizations start to decline until case numbers start to decline, she said, and there’s no sign of that happening yet.
As for how long the new indoor mask mandate will last, Ferrer confirmed that current policy states the rules would remain in place until we’ve dropped back down into the Medium community level for two consecutive weeks. She did say, though, that this discussion could be revisited at some point, depending on how things go between now and then.
Ferrer also reiterated her remarks from a few days earlier about how it’s a myth that most people are not at risk for serious illness from COVID-19. In fact, she said, COVID-19 is still one of the leading causes of death in LA County, much worse than flu and colds, so – just as with seat belt laws that help to reduce traffic deaths – we “owe it to each other to do whatever we can” to reduce transmission.
Finally, Ferrer did say that while hospitalizations are rising, she doesn’t expect them to reach the level of overwhelm we’ve seen in past surges, because we now have better knowledge and tools that are keeping more people out of the hospital. Even so, however, she said we are seeing some stress to emergency rooms, urgent care providers, and individual providers, because people are still getting sick enough to require some kinds of medical attention, if not full hospitalization.
Also, in a similar vein, Ferrer said she doesn’t expect to see any further total shutdowns of workplaces and public spaces, again because of effective tools such as masking, testing and therapeutics. She said the only time a full shutdown could possibly happen again is if a new variant appears that completely evades our current protections…which we haven’t seen so far.
Of course the more the virus spreads, the greater the chance of new mutations emerging, and some of those could be concerning. And in fact, Ferrer said, there is a new one – BA.2.75 – spreading now in India, though very little is know about it yet. (And there’s only one case in LA County so far.)