For the first time in several weeks, according to LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer in her weekly address on Thursday, April 7, COVID-19 cases in LA County are no longer declining, and are even ticking up a bit, with the average number of daily new cases rising 33% during the week ending on April 6, from 660 to 878.
The good news is, however, that test positivity rates, hospitalizations, and deaths (the last two of which tend to lag a week or two behind new case numbers) are both still very low.
Also, despite the slightly rising case numbers, the case rate per 100,000 people, and the two hospital metrics used to calculated the CDC’s “Community” levels of the virus were still low enough to keep us in the “Low” Community Level overall.
Among early alert signals tracked by LA County this week, only two – the percent of specimens identified as “new variants of concern” (in this case the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron), and the number of new outbreaks in TK-12th grade schools – were flagged, with 14 new school outbreaks meeting the level for “moderate” concern, and the BA.2 samples hitting 47% of all specimens sequenced, which is a level of “high” concern.
Overall, Ferrer reported, as it has for a while now, the Omicron variant (including all of its reported subvariants) now accounts for 100% of all cases in LA County, with the BA.2 subvariant now representing 46.5 cases (up from 31.8% the week before).
Also, Ferrer said that because the reporting is actually a few weeks old, it’s quite likely that BA.2 is now the dominant variant here, as it is both across the U.S. and internationally at the moment. (And, yes, that is prompting a return to stricter regulations in some places. For example, according to the New York Times, the city of Philadelphia, which is averaging only 142 new cases of COVID per day at the moment, just announced that it is reinstating the indoor mask mandate it dropped just a bit more than a month ago, in hopes of preventing a new surge from BA.2.)
Also, as noted earlier, Ferrer reported that there were 14 new school outbreaks this week, with more than 60 cases at just one high school – an all-time high during the current pandemic.
Ferrer was careful, however, to note that despite the number of outbreaks, there were no increases in the total number of cases at schools this week…
…and test positivity remained low as well.
So the increase in school outbreaks was likely not an indicator that a surge is brewing, but probably just an indicator of the increased transmissibility of the BA.2 variant, combined with the fact that LAUSD eliminated its mask mandate and has recently relaxed other protocols as well – which means the virus can spread more easily when it gets a toehold in a specific location.
Ferrer said that to reduce continuing risks in schools – and especially when there are positive cases or outbreaks at schools – masks are still very strongly recommended indoors, along with improving ventilation as much as possible, monitoring students and staff for COVID-19 symptoms, testing people who have symptoms or who have been exposed to COVID-19, and continuing weekly testing for everyone who is not fully vaccinated. (Note that LAUSD still requires weekly testing for all students and staff members, though other districts in LA County may not.)
“I know people really hate masks,” said Ferrer, “but those masks really helped in the classroom to keep transmissions low.”
Among LA County’s wider metrics for COVID-19 preparedness, the only one flagged for improvement this week was the percentage of positive cases that were sequenced to identify specific strains of the virus. Last week’s total came in at 4%, just shy of the 5% considered adequate by County health officials.
Moving on to a more specific discussion of vaccines, Ferrer noted that the percentage of LA County residents ages 12 and over who have had at least one booster shot in addition to their initial doses of a COVID-19 vaccine has actually declined over the last few months, as more people have become eligible for boosters.
This means that increasing the number of vaccinated individuals, and making sure people get their booster shots, is even more important as time goes on, especially in our most vulnerable communities, and especially with the spring break and holiday season – when there will be more family gatherings – upon us.
Ferrer said studies show very convincingly now that three doses of a vaccine are generally about 90% effective in preventing hospitalization when someone becomes infected. But it’s also clear, she said, that immunity – whether from vaccines or a previous COVID infection – does wane over time, so boosters are still very important, even if you had COVID during the winter surge. And it’s still important to wear masks, especially in crowded indoor locations, or if you or someone around you has an elevated risk (such as those who are elderly, immunocompromised, or have other health risks).
Thankfully, however, finding free vaccines is still very easy, with more than 700 mobile sites across LA County this week, LA County workers going door to door in some areas, and even in-home vaccinations offered for those who need them. For more information, see the various resources listed at vaccinatelacounty.com or call the Public Health Vaccine Call Center at (833) 540-0473.
In addition, Ferrer noted that for those who are experiencing symptoms, or who may have been exposed to COVID-19, there are now 70 “Test to Treat” locations around LA County – specific community sites, and clinics at CVS and Walgreens stores – where you can be tested for COVID-19 and, if you test positive, receive treatment at the same place with one of several therapeutic drugs now available.
Also, of course, if you have been exposed, and/or are experiencing COVID symptoms, you can still contact your own health care provider to ask about the new therapeutic treatments, which should be administered as soon as possible after infection.
And, finally, while the County is working to expand its Test to Treat program, it has also introduced “Test to Treat” tele-health services. Residents can now contact the County’s call center at (833) 540-0473 to learn more about the in-person Test to Treat sites, get referrals for further evaluation after a positive test, or ask questions about testing and treatment.
Finally, Ferrer said that despite the week’s increase in new cases, “I’m actually hopeful that we won’t see the surge that we saw over the winter,” for several reasons. First, she said, more than 1 million LA County residents were infected with Omicron during the winter surge, so they will have at least somewhat higher immunity than they would have otherwise, at least for a while. Also, more than 75% of our population is now fully vaccinated…and the number of people getting booster shots is increasing (if not quite as fast as officials hoped it would), and the new therapeutic treatments, though still somewhat limited in supply, are more available now than they were even a few months ago.
At the same time, however, Ferrer said she’s also a “realist,” and that to prevent wider surges, we do still have to depend on each other for protection…so we can’t dismiss future outbreaks or say that we’re completely done with masks. “There are times it will be important to actually put masks back on,” she said. And when there are further school outbreaks, as there will likely be, “We start talking right away – “get those masks back on.””
But “I’m hopeful that what we are doing we should be able to avoid a really big surge. But I have no crystal ball, no promises, just hopefulness we can continue to do our part and keep ourselves from having a bad spring.”
About 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 is the co-owner/publisher of the Buzz.
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