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COVID-19 Update: “Post-Surge Does Not Imply that the Pandemic is Over.”

This week’s COVID-19 charts show both new cases and hospitalizations declining steadily, though deaths have not yet followed suit.


“When transmission rates are lower, we’ll be relaxing mask requirements – but we’re not there yet.”
— LA County Health Director Barbara Ferrer


Short Takes


  • New cases, case rates, test positivity and hospitalizations declining
  • Deaths not declining yet
  • COVID-19 is the #1 cause of death in LA County
  • BA.2 Omicron subvariant may be more transmissible
  • Vaccines are best protection; masks and distancing still important
  • Mask rules won’t be relaxed until hospitalizations drop below 2,500 for 7 consecutive days


In her weekly media address this week, LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer reported that “we have seen real declines in all metrics this week,” with new cases, case rates, test positivity rates and hospitalizations all declining and indicating we are past the peak of this winter’s Omicron surge.  At the same time, however, Ferrer also spent much time explaining that although people are eager to leave masks and other protections behind, the pandemic continues and we are not yet at the point where it would be safe to do that.


The Numbers



Ferrer reported on Thursday that the daily average of new COVID-19 cases in LA County fell from about 28,000 per day to about 15,600 per day over the past week, signaling that we are now firmly on the down side of the winter peak.  That said, however, Ferrer was also careful to emphasize that the current numbers do still represent a very “high rate of transmission” (still higher than at any point since last winter) and should not be taken as a sign that the pandemic itself is over.

In addition, hospitalizations also fell steadily over the past week, from 4,192 to 3,398…but daily deaths from COVID-19 do not yet show a similar reliably downward trend (though they do tend to lag a few weeks behind other indicators, so Ferrer said she hopes to see a steady decline in the death rate soon).


COVID-19 Tops Causes of Death


According to Ferrer, COVID-19 is now the single leading cause of death in LA County, edging out the previous number one, coronary heart disease, for the period between March, 2020 and December 2021.  And influenza (to which COVID is often erroneously compared) accounted for only about 1/8 as many deaths as COVID for the same period.



New Variants


Ferrer explained that one reason health officials are cautious about being overly optimistic when a specific strain of COVID starts to wane is that new variants are always emerging, especially when transmission is still widespread as it is now, and it’s impossible to predict the severity of new strains until they emerge and start to spread.  (The chart below shows how the Omicron variant quickly replaced the Delta variant in December, and the same thing could potentially happen with a new variant.)



Ferrer said health officials are still watching the new BA.2 subvariant of Omicron, which was up to 17 cases in LA County last week, from just 4 cases the week before.  Ferrer said the severity of BA.2 isn’t known yet, though so far it seems to be about the same as the original BA.1 Omicron strain…but it may turn out to be even more transmissible than the BA.1 version.  Thankfully, though, Ferrer said that so far, vaccines seem to be about as effective for BA.2 as they were for BA.1 (between 63% effective for BA.1 and 70% effective for BA.2).


Vaccine Effectiveness


Ferrer stressed that the numbers continue to show a strong benefit from COVID-19 vaccines, with case rates highest by far in people who are unvaccinated, much lower for those who have been fully vaccinated without booster shots, and lowest of all for those who are both fully vaccinated and have received booster shots.



And the pattern is even more apparent in hospitalization rates…



Among ICU admissions, the gaps between those who are vaccinated and those who are not become even more evident…



And the gaps are largest of all in death rates, which are five to 10 times higher among those who are unvaccinated than among those who are fully vaccinated or both vaccinated and boosted.



Based on these statistics, Ferrer said, vaccinations remain both our best tool for fighting the spread of COVID, and the biggest opportunity for stemming the pandemic.  The two biggest gaps in current vaccine coverage, Ferrer reported, are the 5 to 11-year-old age group, among which only 23% are currently fully vaccinated, and those in all groups who still need booster shots — only 32% of LA County residents of all ages are currently both fully vaccinated and boosted.



When Can We Relax?


With Omicron cases now on the decline, one of the biggest questions being asked these days is when can we get rid of widespread mask requirements.  But as Ferrer noted several times in her remarks this week, new case numbers and transmission rates are still very high, and it is still too early to relax masking and other common-sense protective measures.

“When transmission rates are lower, we’ll be relaxing mask requirements, but we’re not there yet,” Ferrer said.  Also, she clarified, “Post-surge does not imply that the pandemic is over.  Or that transmission is low.  Or that there will not be additional unpredictable waves or surges in the future that will require integrated public health measures.  Rather, it implies that we are stabilizing, with consistent declines from the surge peak and realizing our public health response to meet current mitigation needs.

Ferrer reported, however, that despite the public’s eagerness to be relieved of mask requirements, most businesses have been complying well with current mask rules, for both employees and customers.



So when can we relax these rules?  According to Ferrer, “We will consider LA County to be post surge when hospitalizations drop below 2,500 for seven consecutive days,” a point we have not yet hit, but could soon.  Ferrer noted that one of this winter’s surge’s most severe consequences was the “extraordinary” pressure it put on our health care system, which has not yet recovered in terms of staffing, resources, and other factors.  So we need to keep protections in place until we hit those lower hospitalization rates, to make sure our health care system recovers, too.

When we do finally hit those lower hospitalization numbers, however, Ferrer said masking rules will change.  Masks will no longer be required at outdoor mega events, or in outdoor spaces in childcare facilities and schools.  Masks will still be required, though, at least for the time being, at indoor offices, schools, public transit and more…at least until transmission rates drop even further, to “Moderate” levels or below (as defined by the CDC), and there are no new variants of concern on the horizon.  And even then, she said, there will still be some masking requirements, in some kinds of spaces and gatherings, until we reach officially “Low” levels of transmission.



Other News

In other COVID-19 news this week:


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Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - with deep roots in both the Sycamore Square and West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhoods. She spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and has been writing for the Buzz since 2015.

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