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COVID-19 Update: Workplace Clusters Reach High Level; BA.4 and BA.5 Variants Growing


In her weekly address yesterday, LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer reported that both COVID-19-related hospitalizations and clusters of workplace outbreaks are up this week, putting a damper on last week’s slightly better news and putting LA County back on a path to potentially reach a “high” community level, as defined by the CDC, by July 19.

Ferrer reported a “lot of variability” in daily new cases over the last week, from Monday’s low of 3,110 to Wednesday’s high of 6,529.  (And then, after dipping back into the 5,000s yesterday, the County today reported 7,324 new cases.) The daily average, however, was more than 5,100, which is definitely up from the week before.  Test positivity rates also rose significantly this week, up to almost 14%.  (Though Ferrer said that is at least partially due to the fact that LAUSD schools are closed for the summer and not routinely testing their students and staff, so most people being tested now are doing so because they’ve either been exposed to COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms.)  At the same time, however, Ferrer noted, as usual, that even the rising numbers are definitely an undercount, since so many people are now using home tests, which are not included in the official testing data.

Finally, Ferrer also reported that hospitalizations rose this week from 688 to 808, though deaths continue to remain low.



This week’s numbers, including our case rate of 326 per 100,000 residents, keep LA County firmly in the “medium” community tier, as defined by the CDC, which means our health care system is not currently over-stressed by COVID-19.  If numbers continue to rise, however, we could reach that state in the not-too-distant future. Currently, 8.1 of every 100,000 residents are being admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 each week, and if that number rises to 10 or more, it could also help push us into the high community tier.  If we reach that level and stay there for two weeks, that would once again trigger mandatory indoor masking rules.



Based on this week’s trends, Ferrer said that if things continue at the current rate, it’s “more and more likely” that we could hit the high community tier by July 19.  This is significantly sooner than last week’s projection of the end of July, but Ferrer also said the projections are definitely subject to change as the COVID-19 landscape shifts…which is hard to predict as new variants emerge and evolve.



This week’s increasing concerns also show up in the early alert signals LA County tracks.  This week, Ferrer reported, four of the seven indicators currently being monitored reached the “high” level of concern, where there had been only two last week.  And two more moved up from “low” to “medium” concern.  The only indicator remaining at a low level of concern was wastewater monitoring, where no major increases in COVID-19 concentration were seen this week.



As hinted at by the other rising numbers, while all of our local cases are still attributable to the Omicron variant of COVID-19, the newest sub-lineages, BA.4 and BA.5, grew significantly this week, to 29.5% of all cases in LA County and 52% of all cases in the U.S..  Ferrer said new studies show that both BA.4 and BA.5 seem to spread even faster than the previous BA.2  and BA.3 varieties of Omicron (which were both significantly more transmissible than their predecessors).  BA.4 and BA.5 also seem more likely to cause re-infections in people who have previously had COVID-19, and appear more likely to attack lung cells than the other Omicron strains we’ve seen so far. “All of which point us to the need to prepare for significant transmission in the upcoming weeks,” Ferrer said.  To help slow the variants’ further spread, Ferrer said, we definitely need to use all the tools currently at our disposal, such as vaccinations, masks, and moving activities outdoors as much as possible.

Ferrer said the evidence that masks, in particular, do work is “crystal clear,” and if people start wearing them voluntarily indoors now, it could help keep us from reaching the point at which they’d actually be required again.  “I’m just suggesting that everyone do their part” to help slow things down, Ferrer said.



Among a couple of other metrics that indicate a more general pattern of increase this week, Ferrer reported, is the percentage of emergency room encounters related to COVID-19, which has been rising slowly but steadily over the last few weeks.  Ferrer said this is still a small percentage of overall hospital visits, but noted that people who do visit the ER are generally quite sick.  Also, as we’re seeing this rise in COVID-19 cases in the ER, the county is still reporting an unusually high number of other respiratory illnesses this summer, including flu and RSV, so people may also be more vulnerable to COVID-19 if they’ve recently been ill recently with another such virus.



Another indicator of particular concern this week, Ferrer reported, is the number of workplace outbreaks (more than three cases in a 14-day period), which this week numbered 301, reaching a “high” level of concern.  According to Ferrer, workplace cases have risen about 62% over the last month, and can probably be attributed to several factors, including people not wearing masks indoors, people coming to work when they have symptoms of COVID-19, gatherings in crowded indoor spaces (such as meeting rooms and lunch rooms), and workplaces moving more group events indoors again.



To reduce risks of transmission in the workplace, Ferrer recommended reducing crowding and increasing physical distancing in communal spaces such as break rooms and cafeterias, and that work sites that do have outbreaks consider allowing remote work when possible (especially for employees with elevated risk factors), and require workers who were exposed to a positive case to wear masks for at least 14 days.



Moving on to a wider profile of which communities are being hit hardest by the virus at the moment, Ferrer reported that, as has been the case throughout the pandemic, our poorest neighborhoods continue to experience the highest number of hospital admissions…



…and Black residents continue to be hospitalized at much higher rates than those of LatinX, White, and Asian race or ethnicity.



Ferrer said the biggest opportunity to close the racial/ethnic gap is through vaccinations.  Currently, she said, Black residents of LA County – in all age groups except 65 and older – have the lowest vaccination rates of any major racial or ethnic group. Only 19.7% of Black children ages 5-11 are fully vaccinated (compared to 58.2% for those of Asian descent and 39.7% for whites), and only 58.9% of Black adults between the ages of 30 and 49 fully vaccinated (compared to 82.2% of Asians, and 76.1% of whites).



With the Fourth of July holiday weekend upon us, Ferrer also urged all who are planning to attend celebrations to practice several key safety measures.  First, she said, please skip the party if you’re sick or have been exposed to COVID-19, even if you test negative (you could still have the flu or another transmissible virus, or it could be COVID but just too early to be detected in a home test). “In either case,” she said, “people who are sick should stay home so they don’t pass on any infections to others.”

“You do not want to be the person who brings COVID to the party.”

Also, Ferrer recommended that even if you’re feeling well, you should test before attending a gathering, hold celebrations outdoors,  and wear masks when gathering with others indoors.  And if you do get sick, she said, contact your health care provider as soon as possible about treatments that may be available to you by prescription.



Finally, Ferrer noted that while most COVID-19 testing sites are free, there are a few that do (and are allowed to) charge for some services.  At the same time, however, Ferrer said all COVID-19 vaccinations are free of charge, and any site that tries to charge for them is fraudulent.  (So if you do run into one of those, don’t pay the fee, and do report it to LA County.)

“Let’s use the tools we have at hand,” Ferrer said, “so we can enjoy our summer, the holiday, and our time with friends.”



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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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