“The task before us is similar to what we’ve had to do at several points in the last 2 1/2 years: slow transmission. And we know what works – masking, testing, and vaccinations.”
— LA County Health Director Barbara Ferrer
With 4,725 new COVID-19 cases reported yesterday, and numbers tripling over the last month to the highest levels since February, LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer reported in her weekly address yesterday that LA County has now officially moved from a “Low” community rate for the virus, as defined by the CDC, to the “Medium” tier, indicating that the virus could once again begin to put pressure on our health care system. Also, according to Ferrer, hospitalizations are starting to increase now, too, though death rates are still holding steady at relatively low levels.
The transition from Low to Medium community levels does not bring any new mandated restrictions, Ferrer said, but it does bring some specific recommendations to help keep transmission rates as low as possible and to help prevent us from moving to the High tier (which would trigger a return to mask requirements indoors in public places). According to Ferrer, the Medium tier recommendations – for masking, school and workplace testing, and promoting vaccinations and booster shots – are actually things LA County is already doing, so there are no functional changes for us at this point, other than to renew and strengthen the health department’s current efforts and recommendations.
For the last several months, LA County has been tracking several Early Alert Signals that can indicate trouble ahead, and this week, for the first time, Ferrer reported that six of eight key metrics have reached levels of medium or high concern. This includes the fact that 99% of case samples sequenced in LA County are now identified as the highly contagious Omicron variant (or one of its even more contagious subvariants), and that the 7-day averages for coronavirus-related Emergency Room encounters, case rates in the lowest income areas, and the number of new clusters in skilled nursing facilities, schools, and workplaces have all risen to the threshold of “medium concern.”
Ferrer said the 99% of cases currently identified as the Omicron variant, or one of its many subvariants, is significant because it shows the virus is still evolving, which means it’s also still unpredictable, and we don’t know for sure what the characteristics of the new variants will be. And because of this, vaccinations are still our best protection against both current and the constantly emerging new strains because they have so far remained effective against all the variants we’ve seen so far. “There’s little doubt,” Ferrer said, “that getting vaccinated and boosted offers the best protection from the worst outcomes associated with the virus.”
Currently, Ferrer reported, 100% of local cases are some variant of the Omicron strain, with 27% identified as BA.2.12.1, and 12% the slightly newer BA2.3. Ferrer said there have been only 6 cases of the newer BA.4 reported in LA County, though that variant is now dominant in South Africa, and only one case of BA.5.
Among other key indicators, outbreaks in skilled nursing facilities have also risen to the level of “medium” concern, which is important because of the relative frailty of this population. To help prevent further outbreaks in these settings, Ferrer said the County is renewing its advice for reducing risks – including continuing to require all residents and staff to wear masks indoors, conducting regular testing of staff who are not fully vaccinated, conducting contact tracing, isolating positive cases, and requiring visitors to be tested prior to indoor visits.
Clusters of new cases in worksites – especially those in the retail and manufacturing segments – have also increased six-fold in the last month, Ferrer said, and have now also crossed the threshold for “medium” concern
And school outbreaks continue to be elevated, with 11 new clusters this week, which is more than three times the number reported a month ago.
Ferrer reported that most of the school-based cases so far have been among elementary-aged students, but she strongly recommended that all staff and students wear masks when possible indoors now, especially as end-of-year events like proms and graduations ramp up over the next few weeks.
Interestingly, Ferrer reported that not only are COVID-19 cases rising right now, but we’re also having a very unusual increase increase in flu cases, which usually peak in the fall and winter, but which are higher for this time of year than at any time in several years. This is yet another reminder, Ferrer said, that all viruses can be unpredictable…and also that it’s not too late to get a flu shot if you didn’t do so last fall or winter. In addition, Ferrer noted that all the basic COVID-19 protections – such as wearing masks, washing hands frequently, getting tested if you have symptoms, and staying home if you’re sick – work for the flu, too.
Finally, Ferrer provided several kinds of advice for keeping ourselves and each other safe during periods of high transmission, such as wearing masks at indoor gatherings and getting vaccinated or boosted.
In addition, she said, be sure to get tested if you’ve been exposed to the virus or have symptoms, and talk to your doctor about therapeutic treatments if you are infected.
Also, Ferrer reported that the FDA has now recommended booster doses for children ages 5-11, and the CDC may approve those additional shots as early as today. If the approval does come as expected, Ferrer said, LA County vaccination sites would be prepared to provide the boosters to this age group as soon as this weekend.
And with Memorial Day weekend and summer travel looming for many people, Ferrer also provided tips for safe travels, including getting vaccinated and tested before you travel, postponing travel if you’re sick, wearing a mask on public transit, and testing again after you return.
Finally, after her main presentation yesterday, Ferrer also provided some additional information in a short Q&A session, including the following:
- Although several cases of monkey pox have been reported in Europe, and one in Massachusetts in the U.S., health officials are not yet certain where the cases came from or how they’re being transmitted. Ferrer said the disease, which isn’t easily transmitted in humans, usually comes from bites or scratches from infected animals. It can be transmitted through contact with bodily fluids, including “prolonged” contact with respiratory droplets, but the virus is easily killed with household disinfectants. She said symptoms of monkey pox include a rash with lesions, which can quickly spread across the body. But she said these can also be symptoms of many other diseases, so if you do have an unusual rash, definitely contact your doctor.
- LA’s current mask mandate for public transit and transit hubs (such as airports and train stations) is scheduled to sunset today, but Ferrer said she fully expects, given current transmission rates, that LA County officials will extended it. “At this point, I think it would be foolhardy,” she said, “to not extend those protections. We need to do everything we can do to stay out of “high,” and no one here wants to see us move to any category that could cause any stress on our health care system, or could result in more people getting sick or dying.” [UPDATE: just as this story was published, LA County did announce, as expected, that the transit mask mandate has been extended for another 30 days, or until there’s a steep drop in transmission, whichever comes first.]
- If people do test positive on a home test for COVID-19, Ferrer said, they do not need to notify LA County of their test results, because at-home test results are too hard to verify, and current modeling techniques used by the county do take home testing into account. At the same time, however, Ferrer said it can still be a good idea to call the county’s COVID-19 hotline at (833) 540-0473 if you get a positive result on a home test, because it provides great access, from 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., seven days a week, to nurses and other personnel who can provide information even when your own doctors are not available.
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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