First published in the July 30 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
Los Angeles County health officials saw a significant enough decline in case and hospitalization rates in the past week that they hit the pause button on reinstituting a universal mask mandate.
The Department of Public Health had warned a masking requirement for individuals 2 years and older in indoor public spaces was imminent and would be implemented this week as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations increased due to the highly infectious BA.5 Omicron subvariant.
Barbara Ferrer, L.A. Public Health director, had a more positive outlook Thursday after analyzing the most recent data and announced that the county would hold off on modifying the health order. Masking is still required in indoor public transit, such as airports, cabs and Uber, shelters, health-care facilities and jails.
“There has been a fairly steady decline in cases since July 23, potentially signaling the beginning of a downward trend in cases,” Ferrer said. “It would be a welcome relief if this current surge has peaked.”
Hospitalizations are also declining with 1,239 reported Thursday, 90 fewer than the number of patients with COVID-19 on July 20.
In determining the community transmission rate, local health officials rely on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s metric of hospital admissions per 100,000 people over a seven-day period. As of Thursday, L.A. County was at 11.5 new admissions per 100,000 people, which is well above the CDC’s threshold of high community transmission of 10 or more per 100,00 people.
However, Ferrer said that there is a lag with the CDC’s numbers, and the county’s more up-to-date data indicated that figure to actually be 9.7 per 100,000 people between July 20-27, which would place the region in the medium community level.
“I feel pretty confident that we are going to move to that lower medium community level, and that is a good reason … for pausing,” Ferrer said. “It would be a little bit ridiculous to go ahead tomorrow and implement universal indoor masking if I know that a few days from now we’re going to be moved back to medium.”
For the past month, health officials had been readying the public that a renewal of the masking requirement in indoor public spaces was likely, an injunction that was not well received by many residents and business owners.
Though pressure from stakeholders and county officials was mounting, Ferrer said the decision to not reinstate a mandate was based on the data.
Some of the county supervisors questioned Ferrer’s reasoning regarding the mandate when other counties in California have been experiencing similar coronavirus case rates and hospitalizations and not resorting to a mask mandate.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose district includes Burbank, said she understands the benefits of wearing a mask for individuals but does not see information that merits a county-wide mandate.
“I am adamantly opposed to mandating the masking because I truly do believe it’s going to have the opposite effects,” Barger said during a Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday. “We’re seeing, not a city in my district, but cities now taking votes to refuse to enforce [the mandate].”
One of the reasons L.A. Public Health explored the possibility of a mandate was because of a surge in cases at worksites, which can cause staffing shortages at businesses and, most importantly, health care facilities.
“The biggest stress on the hospitals right now is the number of staff who are calling out,” Dr. Christina Ghaly, L.A. County’s health services director, said Tuesday. “In hospitals, that means that beds are closed or that it might take longer to be seen in an emergency department, and there are several ways in which there is an impact on facilities.”
Dr. Stephen Kishineff, an emergency physician at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center, confirmed that the recent surge has affected the hospital with dozens of doctors and nurses calling out because of infection and more patients seeking treatment. However, he believes those infected with BA.5 do not suffer from severe symptoms as people did from previous strains because of the tools available today.
“Now there’s vaccines and there’s treatment,” said Kishineff, who was opposed to a mandate. “If you get COVID, we give Paxlovid. There’s also natural immunity and the fact that the virus itself has mutated into a weaker virus, as far as I’m concerned.”
On Thursday, most of the COVID-19 patients at Providence Saint Joseph were incidental, meaning they were admitted for another reason and tested positive after being treated. According to Kishineff, the hospital had about 30 patients infected with the coronavirus, which is six times less than in November 2020 during the first winter surge.
“It’s not that they’re here because of COVID,” he said.
Kishineff believes that health officials should embrace the fact that the coronavirus is now a part of everyday life and work to better inform the public on how to best protect themselves.
“The cat is out of the bag, and you can’t put the cat back in the bag,” he said. “It’s a COVID world, and we just live in it.”
Ferrer noted that another reason she considered a mask mandate was the misconception that the subvariant is not as lethal. She expressed concern about the fact that the county has averaged double-digit fatalities related to COVID-19 during the past week and the virus is the leading cause of death, so far, this year.
“I think the question everyone has to ask themselves is how much death do you want to tolerate before you ask people during these extraordinary times of high transmission to put their masks back on?” Ferrer told supervisors. “I’m definitely saying clearly out loud to everyone, and have been for weeks, the death rate right now from COVID is too high. I think we need to do a better job.”