First published in the July 9 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
Burbank residents may soon need to be reacquainted with carrying a face mask when leaving home as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to surge throughout Los Angeles County to levels that could trigger a universal mask mandate.
Transmission had been increasing prior to the July 4 holiday and is expected to continue spiking due to a pair of highly contagious Omicron subvariants known as BA.4 and BA.5.
Burbank had 1,664 COVID-19 cases between June 9 and July 7 and averaged nearly 60 new cases per day.
The L.A. County Department of Public Health reported Thursday that 989 people were hospitalized with the coronavirus — a sharp increase from the 688 hospitalizations reported two weeks prior. Among the individuals hospitalized, 40% are due to coronavirus-related illness while the remaining 60% are patients that incidentally tested positive while being admitted for other reasons.
“The worry, of course, with the increase in hospitalizations is that there may be more individuals at risk for severe illness that are getting infected now given the highly transmissible new variants,” L.A. Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a briefing Thursday.
Health officials were also concerned over an uptick in emergency room and urgent care encounters and deaths, reaching levels not seen since the Omicron winter surge. Sixty-five people died of the disease between July 1-7.
Under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s framework to monitor coronavirus transmission, more than half of the state’s counties were considered high levels. Though L.A. County currently remains in the medium level, Ferrer said a revised health order is looking likely as COVID-19 figures are expected to rise after holiday gatherings last weekend.
Ferrer said the COVID-19 hospitalization rate last week was 8.4 per 100,000 people, which is 62% higher than the previous month but still below what the CDC considers high community transmission level of 10 or more per 100,000 people. However, public health officials expect L.A. County to surpass the threshold as early as July 14.
“This projection is based on the rate of increase in hospital admissions over the past two weeks and, as a reminder, we can’t predict with certainty what the future hospital trend will look like,” Ferrer noted. “However, it is looking more likely as cases and admissions continue to increase, that we’ll enter the high community level designation later this month.”
A universal mask mandate requiring everyone aged 2 and older to mask up indoors when in public would be triggered should the county’s coronavirus transmission rate be high for two consecutive weeks. The mandate would remain in effect until the county moves away from the CDC’s high COVID-19 community level and remains in the medium or low category for two weeks.
Should the projected date turn out to be correct, the county could implement a mask mandate as early as July 29 to alleviate the strain on the local health care system.
“We are remaining aligned with the CDC on their metric that says when you have a lot of cases and a lot of transmission and you start seeing increases in what’s going on in your hospitals, that’s the time to start getting worried,” Ferrer said. “We’re not going to be able to completely eliminate transmission of these highly infectious new subvariants, but we can definitely do a better effort to slow transmission down so that the increases in the hospitals don’t end up creating the kind of stress that we saw both during the Omicron winter surge and previous winter surge.”
Local public health officials urge residents to take precautions such as wearing masks when indoors in public, washing hands often and getting vaccinated, especially children.
“We don’t have the luxury of doing nothing since that would lead to unnecessary illness and even death,” Ferrer said. “What makes most sense is to remain committed to protecting each other. This task has gotten a lot easier as we have more effective tools at our disposal. We just need to take advantage of all the sensible and available safety measures.”
The federal government is doing its part to combat the rise in cases caused by the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants. Last month, the CDC endorsed a pediatric vaccine for children 6 months through 5 years of age, and the Food and Drug Administration recently advised COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers to update their formulas of booster shots to target the highly contagious Omicron subvariants.
On Wednesday, the FDA also authorized state-licensed pharmacists to prescribe Paxlovid, Pfizer’s pill that treats COVID-19 and reduces the risk of a hospitalization, to individuals at higher risk of severe coronavirus symptoms.
“The FDA recognizes the important role pharmacists have played and continue to play in combatting this pandemic,” Patrizia Cavazzoni, director for the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in a statement. “Since Paxlovid must be taken within five days after symptoms begin, authorizing state-licensed pharmacists to prescribe Paxlovid could expand access to timely treatment for some patients who are eligible to receive this drug for the treatment of COVID-19.”
Ferrer said Thursday that the California State Board of Pharmacy has yet approve the ability for pharmacists to prescribe the treatment but looks forward to having another tool to combat the disease.
“We know that this development is going to increase access to lifesaving medication for people who become ill with COVID,” she said.