In her weekly address to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors yesterday, LA County Director of Public Health Barbara Ferrer reported that new cases of COVID-19 are now down 90% from the peak of the Omicron surge in January, and if the declines in cases and other metrics continue as expected, most indoor mask mandates could be lifted as soon as this Friday, March 4.
“While we have not yet reached our pre-surge levels,” Ferrer told the Supervisors, “we are making very good progress.” Ferrer said that she is hoping we’ll soon see levels as low as those we had last spring (see the graph above), and that we’re close now to our pre-surge levels in November, as shown below.
Last week, the CDC issued new guidelines for calculating local COVID transmission risks, and as of last week, our numbers were still high enough to place us in the highest risk tier, as shown in the chart below. This week, however, with further declines in our risk factors, Ferrer said she expects that when the CDC does its weekly county-by-county reassessment on Thursday, LA County will move to either the “Medium” or even “Low” risk category.
And if we do move into one of those lower tiers, Ferrer said, we’ll align with the state’s new guidelines that eliminate most indoor masking requirements and replace them with “strong recommendations” that people to continue to protect themselves with masks when appropriate — especially in crowded indoor spaces, and especially for people who have elevated risks of COVID-19 transmission or complications.
Note, however, that in a new, lower risk tier, it does NOT mean that all local mask restrictions will immediately disappear. For example, for the time being, masks will still be required on public transit and in health care and long-term care facilities, as shown above.
Also, employers and businesses are not required to drop masking rules, and will still be able to choose whether or not they would like to retain mask requirements for employees and/or customers, depending on their own situations. And each school district across the state will be able to decide, based on various local factors, whether or not – or how soon – to relax their indoor mask restrictions. (LAUSD, for example, cannot relax its masking requirements until it negotiates new policies with its teachers’ union, something it will likely do soon…but which has not been done yet.)
And finally, of course, individuals may still choose, based on their own comfort and risk levels, to wear masks wherever they feel safer doing so.
Ferrer also explained to the supervisors yesterday that mask-wearing and vaccinations will continue to be among our most important tools for keeping COVID-19 transmission low as we move from a “pandemic” to “endemic” phase of the disease, in which COVID-19 may be with us to some degree for the foreseeable future…so keeping it at the lowest levels possible will become our major goal.
Regarding vaccinations, Ferrer reported that 70% of LA County residents ages five and up are now fully vaccinated, though only 35% of those residents have also had a COVID-19 booster shot. So the County will continue its efforts to provide both vaccinations and vaccine education, to help reach people who were initially reluctant to receive either their initial doses and/or their booster shots.
Also, Ferrer explained that vaccinations alone do not protect everyone who is vulnerable. In fact, she said, statistics show that a fully vaccinated person living in a high poverty area still has a higher chance of contracting COVID-19, becoming sick enough to require hospitalization, or dying from COVID-19 than an unvaccinated person living in a wealthy area.
There are several reasons for this inequity, Ferrer said, including generally poorer access to health care in less affluent areas, higher incidences of conditions such as heart disease and/or diabetes, possibly more crowded living conditions, and also the fact that many people in these communities work in front-line jobs with lots of public contact. So these communities will also now be among the most vulnerable as mask requirements are relaxed…so continuing masking requirements for some people and in some spaces may be an important factor in protecting large parts of our population.
And further, of course, there are other high-risk groups, too, such as people with specific medical conditions who remain vulnerable too, even in the post-surge period, so the more people continue to wear masks in high-risk situations, the more we protect these vulnerable groups, too.
Finally, Ferrer also reported that while 100% of our local cases are still the Omicron variant, “COVID-19 is an unpredictable virus,” and “it ain’t over until it’s over.” For example, she said, the BA.2 Omicron variant is gaining steam in some parts of the world, though it hasn’t made big inroads in the U.S. so far, and other new variants and subvariants are always possible.
In conclusion, Ferrer noted that while we are relaxing many previous restrictions, we have learned a lot from the last two years, and the County now has a very specific plan to help manage the post-surge environment, including strategies for managing outbreaks, continued testing efforts, therapeutic treatments for infections, continued vaccination efforts, and continued sequencing of test samples to help track and identify specific variants moving forward.
Also, Ferrer said, LA County will be keeping a close eye on several key indicators of COVID’s progression, based on the new CDC guidelines, which include more factors than just hospitalizations (LA’s previous key indicator). And that means that even with some restrictions relaxes, the County should be able to react quickly with new recommendations or restrictions if/when specific metrics move again from levels of low to moderate or high concern.
And LA County can also plan to implement the following preventive measures – such as masking and vaccination verification – as needed, depending on our current risk tier.