For the last two months, COVID-19 cases, case rates, hospitalizations and deaths have all been falling pretty steadily, leading to the relaxation of many winter-surge-related rules for masking, vaccinations and testing. But the pandemic is definitely not over, and LA County Public Health Director reported in her weekly address last Thursday that “rates are leveling off and cases are no longer declining.”
Over the week prior to her address, Ferrer reported that LA County is now reporting an average of 668 cases per day, which is up slightly from the week before. There are also no declines in case rates (the number of cases per 100,000 people per day), and test positivity rose slightly to 1.1%. Hospitalizations did continue to drop over the last week, but they tend to lag a bit behind other indicators. That said, however, Ferrer pointed out that our numbers are still better than they have been at any time since last July.
According to the CDC’s current metrics, our case rates, COVID-19 hospital admission rates, and proportion of in-patient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients are also all low enough to continue to qualify us for the CDC’s “low” community level.
Meanwhile, however, among the seven early alert signals tracked by LA County, which could signal more trouble ahead, there is one item this week – the percentage of specimens identified as a new “variant of concern” – which does meet the threshold for “High Concern.” That’s the percentage of samples, 32% this week, identified as the even more contagious BA.2 subvariant of Omicron, which is spreading very quickly both here and elsewhere.
In fact, the percentage of BA.2 in LA County nearly doubled this week, from 16.7% last week to 32% this week.
Ferrer reported that according to the World Health Organization, 85% of samples worldwide are now BA.2, while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says the number is 55% across the United States. All of which means that more is probably headed our way, and we do need to continue to prepare ourselves to help prevent the spread of the virus, especially in ways we’re still particularly vulnerable.
According to Ferrer, LA County’s biggest vulnerability right now is the percentage of residents who are either unvaccinated and/or have not had a booster shot in addition to their initial vaccines. Currently, Ferrer said, there are still about 1.7 million unvaccinated people in LA County, and the lag is biggest in our most vulnerable communities, where only 37% of people have been both vaccinated and boosted.
Ferrer said that because case rates have been dropping so quickly lately, many people who may have been hesitating to get their shots may now feel that they’re unnecessary. But the truth is that vaccines are still very important to keep new variants from spreading, so getting vaccinated can still help protect both individuals and those they may come in contact with against the spread of new variants.
In addition to continuing to promote vaccinations, Ferrer said, LA County is also continuing to monitor several factors – such as wastewater and the percentage of emergency department calls related to COVID – which don’t depend on individuals getting tested to indicate that cases may be rising, and which can both be early indicators of new surges.
At the moment, Ferrer said, COVID-related emergency department calls are still falling, which is good news.
And levels of COVID-19 in LA County wastewater are also low at the moment.
COVID-19 levels in Los Angeles city wastewater, however, have gone up in the last month, though Ferrer says officials aren’t sure yet whether this is a temporary uptick or evidence of a new trend.
Ferrer said it’s important to watch the global picture in addition to local numbers, and that right now, “BA.2 is sweeping the globe,” with some countries currently seeing their highest death rates currently since the beginning of the pandemic.
So although we’ve relaxed many formal restrictions lately, Ferrer said, there is more COVID coming, and there are still four things we should be doing to reduce the risks from BA.2, as it continues to increase both here and in other places. The first of these is to get vaccinated and/or boosted if you haven’t yet. Ferrer said data from around the world shows that the vaccine protection wanes over time, so the boosters are important if you haven’t already had them. Also, she said, those who have had COVID recently probably did gain some extra immunity from that exposure, but because we don’t yet know how long that immunity lasts, people shouldn’t rely on it, and should still get boosted. “We [still] have enough transmission that you don’t really want to be increasing your risk,” Ferrer said.
The second risk-reduction step, Ferrer said, is talk to your health care provider about therapeutic treatments, especially Evusheld if you’re not able to get vaccinated.
Third, said Ferrer, is to get tested if you were exposed to COVID-19 and/or are experiencing symptoms.
And the fourth step is to continue to wear masks indoors in public places, whether or not a specific venue requires it.
“I think we need to still be cautions because we’re not anywhere near low transmission,” Ferrer said, noting that every time we’ve lifted restrictions in the past few months, we’ve seen an uptick in new cases…and we may be seeing that now, too.
Finally, when asked if she sees LA County ever going “back” to some of the restrictions that have now been lifted, Ferrer said, “I never think of it as going backward with restrictions.” Instead, she said, there’s just an ongoing cycle of adjusting various protective tools to meet current and future challenges. She said we now have “a big toolkit” at our disposal, and we can use any or all of its tools (masks, vaccination requirements, testing, etc.) when we need to, to help make sure we keep the economy open and our health care system from being over-stressed, whatever comes our way.
” I think that’s the goal,” said Ferrer. “How do we stay open and how do we stay safe?” And to do that over the rest of this journey, she said, we may indeed need to revisit certain kinds of measures “to ensure we protect our health care system and can continue to lead our customary lives.”