First published in the July 16 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
As was expected by health officials, continued spikes in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations due to a highly infectious subvariant of Omicron placed Los Angeles County into the high COVID-19 community level Thursday, a move that could prompt a mask mandate by the end of the month.
The easily transmissible subvariant known as BA.5 remains rampant throughout the nation, and L.A. County is nearing a universal mask mandate in indoor public settings with its highest COVID-19 figures since the Omicron surge last winter.
A revised health order requiring everyone 2 years and older to wear a mask when indoors in public would be triggered as early as July 29 should the county remain in the high community transmission level for two consecutive weeks, which health officials said is likely.
“The reality is that because we’re living with a mutating SARS-CoV-2 virus, there remains uncertainty around the trajectory of this pandemic,” L.A. Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a virtual briefing Thursday.
Using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s framework of monitoring transmission levels that focuses on hospitalizations, L.A. County shifted into the high transmission category Thursday because it surpassed the threshold of averaging 10 coronavirus admissions per 100,000 people over seven days.
Ferrer said the county averaged 10.5 per 100,000, a sharp 88% increase when compared to the previous month, and that figure may continue to climb over the next few weeks.
“It’s unlikely that we’re at the peak of this recent surge given the increased circulation of new subvariants of concern,” Ferrer said.
Another concern for health officials is the rate of deaths associated with COVID-19. The county averaged 14 deaths per day from July 8-14, and the disease has claimed more than 4,400 lives so far this year.
“We’ve already seen more deaths from COVID these past six months than we have seen annually from any other infectious diseases,” Ferrer said.
Should the trend continue and a mandate be reinforced, L.A. County would likely be alone in its effort to mitigate the spread of the hyper-infectious subvariant. Alameda County implemented a mask mandate June 3 following a rise in hospitalizations and cases in May but lifted the order three weeks later.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger questioned the L.A. County Department of Public Health’s plans for the mandate Tuesday and asked Ferrer if she and her team had researched the Alameda County’s figures before and after its health order to determine the efficacy of the masking requirements.
The supervisors also relayed concerns from small businesses about the mandate, and Ferrer assured them that they would communicate with establishments about any possible changes.
Avoiding any absolutes regarding health orders, Ferrer all but said that hospital metrics will not decrease significantly enough to avoid a mask mandate and that a complete shutdown — as Californians experienced in 2020 — is not likely.
“I mean, nothing is impossible,” Ferrer said, “but at this point, it is much more likely we will stay in [high community levels] these two weeks and we’ll need universal indoor masking starting July 29.
“I never want to say “never,” but we have really, really good tools that ought to make it unlikely that we have to go back to completely separating ourselves from each other to avoid the spread.”
MONKEYPOX VACCINE LIMITED IN L.A. COUNTY
The Jynneos vaccine for the monkeypox virus remains scarce in L.A. County, but more may be on the way later this month as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to conclude an inspection of the manufacturing facility in Denmark that would green light the shipment of vaccines to the states.
As of Friday, there have been 82 cases of monkeypox in L.A. County, and all of the cases have been among adults with a median age of 35 years. Eligibility for the limited vaccine supply was initially invite-only but was recently expanded to certain individuals with sexually-transmitted diseases.
Dr. Rita Singhal, chief medical officer for the L.A. County Department of Public Health, assured residents that the risk of getting infected with monkeypox remains “very low” and that there have not been any deaths or hospitalizations from monkeypox in L.A. County.