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COVID-19 Update: Reported Cases Still Comparatively Low but Doubled in Last Month

LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer speaking yesterday at her first COVID-19 press conference since May.

If you’re like us, you probably know at least one person (or maybe more) right now who’s fighting a case of COVID-19.  Which means that although the city’s declared COVID emergency ended in June, the virus definitely did not go away (both of your Buzz publishers caught it this summer, too, for the first time in the more than three years that it’s been with us). And no, it’s not your imagination that you’re hearing more about it lately than you have for the last several months, because cases are definitely rising again.

In fact, because of recent increases over the last month, LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer yesterday held her first press conference since May to provide information on case trends, new variants, and recent outbreaks at schools, workplaces, and skilled nursing facilities. (Though she was also quick to point out that even with the current increases, which are still far short of previous peaks, “there’s nothing that’s changed” for recommended or mandated safety protocols.)

First, regarding cases, Ferrer said LA County now has about 571 new COVID-19 cases reported each day, which is more than double the 264 just a month ago.

Again, though, Ferrer noted that these totals are still far below the last big peak in November and December, 2022…but she also said it’s “a bit unfair” to compare today’s numbers to those, since so many people now rely on home tests, and the vast majority of cases are no longer reported, so the numbers we do have are much lower than the actual case numbers.  (For further perspective on the underreporting, Ferrer noted that in May, 2022, there were about 134,000 tests reported per day, but in May of this year, it was just 13,000 per day, and that went down to just 6,500 per day after the emergency declaration ended in June.)

In addition to reported cases, hospitalizations have also ticked up this month – from 245 on August 2 to 521 this past week – but that number, too, which doesn’t rely on unreliable case reporting data, is still well below past peaks over the last fourteen months.

And finally, COVID-19 deaths are also still at their lowest point since the spring of 2022, though that indicator usually lags behind others when new cases increse.

A more reliable indicator of just how the virus is really spreading right now, Ferrer said, is wastewater concentrations. And recent virus levels in wastewater definitely are increasing, though at the last reading they were still just barely in the “low concern” level.  Ferrer pointed out, however, that wastewater reporting takes about two weeks, so today’s numbers could be higher than those currently available from the weeks of August 13 and 19.

Also, Ferrer said there have definitely been increases in reported outbreaks in schools, workplaces, and, especially, skilled nursing facilities (the red line in the chart below) in the last few weeks.  The school outbreaks (blue line below), she said, are likely reflective of students’ recent return to school, but the outbreaks at SNFs are approaching spring 2022 levels, which she called not yet severe, but definitely “noteworthy”…though hospitalizations and deaths at those facilities are still much lower than during previous peaks, thanks to vaccinations and available therapeutic drugs.

As always, Ferrer said the COVID-19 virus has continued to evolve over the last few months, and today’s most dominant variant locally is now the EG.5 strain, responsible for about 21.5% of local cases.  As with all others prevalent at the moment, Ferrer said, EG.5 is a descendant of the Omicron variant, as is the other currently-most-prevalent strain XBB.1.5, which is responsible for 13.6% of currently sequenced cases.  XBB.1.5 will also be the specific strain targeted by new vaccines available this fall (more about that below), Ferrer said, but because both XBB.1.5 and EG.5 and other local variants are all Omicron descendants, the vaccine should help with all of them.

In addition to the various strains circulating locally, Ferrer said the CDC is also tracking a newer strain, BA.2.86, which has 35 new mutations, so might be better than many previous variants at circumventing current protections.  She said the number of BA.2.86 cases is still very small, however, with none in California yet, so not much more is known at this point.

Finally, Ferrer said that because LA County currently has only 6.3 COVID-19 related hospitalizations per 100,000 residents right now, we’re still in the low community tier, with no new restrictions needed.  If cases continue to rise at current rates, however, she said that it’s possible that we could move back up to the “medium” tier in about four weeks.

For now, Ferrer said the County’s goals, priorities, and strategies remain the same as they’ve been for the last few months – to make sure our health care system remains responsive to changes in the spread of COVID-19, focus on reducing outbreaks and slowing transmission of the virus, and use the available tools to reduces severe illness and deaths from the virus.

Heading into the long Labor Day weekend, Ferrer also said there is no reason to fear holiday gatherings, and “we want everyone to enjoy the last weekend of summer.”  Masks continue to be a matter of personal preference, but – as always – they are still recommended in crowded indoor spaces, on public transit, and in health care settings, especially if you have recently been exposed to the virus, were recently infected yourself, and/or will be visiting with people who are particularly vulnerable.

Finally, Ferrer reported that updated COVID-19 vaccines will be available in mid to late September, and, yes, you will be able to get them at the same time as you get your annual flu shot, if you choose to do so.

Ferrer said the vaccines should be covered by most insurance plans, and LA County will still provide free vaccinations for those who do not have insurance.  And she said the County will hold another public briefing, specifically about the vaccines, later this month.


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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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