“We have a very different January than expected, and for that I’m grateful,” said LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer on Thursday, announcing in her weekly address that thanks to continued declines in new COVID-19 cases this week, LA County has now moved back into the “low” community tier as defined by the CDC.
Ferrer reported an averaged 1,100 new cases per day this week in LA County, down from 1,700 the week before. Though she also noted, as usual, that this represents a significant undercount since more people are using home tests these days, and those results don’t get reported.
In other good news, hospital admissions were also down this week, Ferrer said, with an average of 136 per day…though that’s still double the number from October. We’re now also averaging 20 deaths per day, which is still higher than the 8 per week around Thanksgiving, and we hit a sad milestone of 35,000 total deaths from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. And Ferrer also pointed out that hospitalizations and deaths remain especially high in our most vulnerable groups, including older people and those who live in high poverty areas.
Since new case numbers are now significantly underreported, Ferrer said, the County also relies on wastewater testing, where levels didn’t really decrease this week, but started to level off at about 70% of last summer’s peak concentrations, and still within the “high” level of concern. On the positive side, though, Ferrer noted that wastewater levels are also not spiking again, as we’ve seen in the past couple of Januaries…and that means the cautionary measures we’ve been taking are making a difference.
But looking at the whole picture, with a new case rate of 75 per 100,000 residents, we do now qualify for the CDC’s “low” community tier, indicating that our health care system is not currently being stressed by the disease.
In general, at the low community level, Ferrer said masks are now a matter of individual choice in indoor spaces, though they are still recommended in indoor public spaces for people with elevated risk factors, and for for five days in workplaces for people who have recently tested negative after at least five days of isolation (that’s a statewide requirement set by the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration). Also, she said, it’s worth noting that masks are still required in health care and congregate care settings, in most indoor spaces for 10 days after exposure to COVID-19, and in places where it is required by a specific business, school or workplace (which are allowed to set their own policies).
Interestingly, Ferrer said, some of the more transmissible COVID-19 variants now on the scene have not yet become the major threats they were feared to be. For example, the BQ1 and BQ1.1 Omicron subvariants’ share of total infections held pretty steady this week at 68.2% of the total, while the newer XBB and XB1.5 variants grew from 7.3 to 10.3%, which is less than originally anticipated by this point and brings hope that our overall numbers will remain relatively low for at least the next several weeks.
Also, by way of evaluating XBB1.5’s influence, Ferrer compared the percentage of XBB1.5 cases in the LA area to those in other major metropolitan areas, along with current hospitalization rates. If this particular variant were driving additional hospitalizations, she said, XBB1.5 hospitalizations would be highest in cities with a larger number of XBB1.5 cases, but that hasn’t necessarily happened. For example, Ferrer reported, LA County currently has more XBB1.5 cases than Chicago, but it has a lower number of COVID-19 hospital admissions. So “this strain of Omicron is not having a major impact on hospitalizations at this time,” Ferrer said, which is yet another indicator that our current mitigation measures are working.
Another interesting statistic Ferrer looked at this week was the number of “co-morbidities” (or risk factors) found in patients hospitalized for COVID-19 in LA County. From the beginning, she said, these trends have remained pretty predictable, with the smallest share of COVID-19 patients having no comorbidities, and the percentages increasing with the number of comorbidities…with the highest percentage of COVID-19 patients having three or more comorbidities.
On the brighter side, Ferrer said, the numbers do show that our newest bivalent boosters definitely do help to protect against COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths. In fact, people who are unvaccinated have hospitalization rates three times higher than those who are vaccinated but not boosted…and seven times higher than those who are both vaccinated and boosted. And deaths are four times higher for those who are unvaccinated than those who are vaccinated but haven’t received the latest booster shot, and almost 8 1/2 times higher than those who are both vaccinated and boosted with the latest bivalent vaccine.
So Ferrer strongly recommended that those who haven’t yet received their bivalent boosters do so soon, and that everyone continue to use other common sense protections to help protect those who are the most vulnerable to infection, hospitalization and death from COVID-19. As always, she said, that includes wearing masks in indoor and/or crowded spaces, testing before and after attending large gatherings, and contacting your health care provider to receive therapeutic treatments if you get infected.
“Moving into the low community level means reduced risk,” Ferrer said, “but it doesn’t mean no risk, especially for those most vulnerable…Low community level is not a promise and it doesn’t signify the end of the pandemic.” Instead she said, “It does show that we know a lot more about COVID-19 and how it works, and how to effectively use the tools we have. My hope is that people will continue to be smart about navigating life with this virus and that we’re truly entering a new phase.”