Los Angeles County reached a “high” level of COVID-19 infections on Thursday, according to public health officials, meaning a mask mandate could be imposed in two weeks as the highly transmissible Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 make waves across the country.
The health department bases its decision on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s three-tier criteria of community high, medium or low levels of COVID-19 rates.
L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer expressed concern to reporters Thursday about the new infections, saying “we have a ton of transmission right now,” and stressed her position on masking up.
“The best way to manage the uncertainty and to reduce morbidity and mortality is to remain open to using both the sophisticated tools we now have — our tests, our vaccines, our therapeutics — and the nonpharmaceutical strategies — masking, ventilation and distancing — to layer on protections to respond to the conditions at hand,” Ferrer said during the briefing.
“Sensible safety precautions that can slow down the spread of the virus are warranted, and that includes universal indoor masking,” she said.
Ferrer told the L.A. County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, and reiterated Thursday, that an indoor mask mandate will be imposed unless there’s a significant reversal in the current hospitalization rates caused by the coronavirus within the next two weeks.
That means the mandate would take effect by July 29.
In order to “reverse course,” Ferrer said the county would have to drop below the “high” infection level, but she said it’s unlikely that would happen before the mandate. The last time the area required face coverings was in March.
The impending decision will automatically go into effect if the county’s rate of daily COVID-positive patients admitted to area hospitals stays at or above 10 per 100,000 residents, which is the threshold for the CDC’s “high” category.
Earlier this week, L.A. County was seeing a hospitalization rate of about 8.8 residents per 100,000, which is categorized at a “medium” level. Numbers of infections and hospital visits have steadily increased since the middle of May.
If the mandate does indeed take effect, it would then expire two weeks later, Ferrer said, but numbers would have to return to a “medium” rating.
“I do recognize that when we return to universal indoor masking to reduce high spread, for many this will feel like a step backwards,” Ferrer said. But she added that masking “makes a lot of sense because it helps us to reduce risks.”
As of July 13, the health department said there were 6,530 new COVID cases, 15 new deaths and 1,170 current hospitalizations.
This week, top U.S. health officials issued a warning about the new Omicron subvariants but also said the country has the tools to prevent people from getting seriously ill. That includes vaccines and antiviral treatments.
“We know how to manage it,” Dr. Ashish Jha, coordinator of the White House’s COVID-19 response, said at a virtual press briefing. “We can prevent serious illness. We can save lives and we can minimize disruptions caused by COVID-19.”
The BA.5 subvariant accounts for a majority of new COVID cases, 65% in the United States, according to the CDC.
However, the death rate remains low in L.A., with the number of intensive care unit patients around 115, according to data from the L.A. Times last updated Tuesday.
The possibility of a mask mandate in L.A. comes months after Philadelphia tried to impose one — and quickly reversed it.
Philadelphia officials implemented a mandate in April amid a sharp spike in infections, but there was fierce opposition and even a legal effort to end the mandate, which the city did just days after instituting it.
The city abandoned it, but Philadelphia Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said the city’s response level system and announcement of a mandate did its job by causing people to increase their awareness and precautions. The spike decreased significantly the week of the mandate.
Ferrer said she understands that many will feel it’s unnecessary because of powerful vaccines and therapeutics, but said that this is a mutating virus with lots of uncertainty.
Additionally, the CDC maintains that “Layered prevention strategies — like staying up to date on vaccines and wearing masks — can help prevent severe illness and reduce the potential for strain on the healthcare system.”
Ferrer said the L.A. County mandate on July 29 would expand “to include all indoor spaces, including shared office spaces, manufacturing facilities, retail stores and at indoor events. Indoor areas of restaurants and bars, children’s programs and educational settings would also need to institute universal indoor masking as well. As a reminder, masks would not be required for those under 2 years old and those using outdoor spaces where the risk of transmission is significantly lower than indoors. Masks would also not be required indoors for those who are actively eating or drinking.”
L.A. health officials also reiterated that the actual number of new infections is not fully reflected in the daily numbers, with many people taking at-home tests, the results of which are not always reported to the county.