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LA County’s COVID Risk Level Moves From Low To Medium

A line graph showing cases, hospitalizations and deaths over time in L.A. County. Case levels have nearly tripled over the past month.
Courtesy of the L.A. County Dept. of Public Health)
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Los Angeles County entered a higher coronavirus risk level Thursday, as health officials reported more than 4,700 new daily cases. A continued rise in cases could trigger the return of restrictions such as a public indoor mask mandate.

The alert level was raised to the CDC’s “medium” level, which has a threshold of 200 new cases per 100,000 residents, even if hospitalizations remain low. L.A. County recorded 202 new cases per 100,000 people last week.

The latest rise, fueled by BA.2 subvariants, does not rival the omicron surge in January and February, but recorded case levels have nearly tripled over the past month. L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said six of the county’s eight early alert signals show “high concern.”

“It could signal that the increases that we're seeing in our COVID cases may soon put pressure on our healthcare resources,” Ferrer said Thursday at her weekly news conference.

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The county saw on average 3,300 cases per day in the past week and the county’s transmission rate remains high. The number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 is creeping up, with about 330 patients and seven deaths per day. The county’s test positivity rate rose to 3.5%

L.A. County had been in the “low” level since early March, after cases and hospitalizations from the omicron surge subsided. That’s also when county health officials dropped the indoor public mask mandate, which had been in place since last July, when cases of the delta variant began to surge.

New infections in L.A. County began trending upward in mid-April, and outbreaks of three or more cases at K-12 schools and worksites followed.

A data table showing cases, hospitalizations and test positivity increasing since May 13, 2022.
Courtesy of the L.A. County Dept. of Public Health)

Ferrer said there are far more cases than the alert system is counting, in part because it does not take into account positive at-home tests, which most people do not report to the health department.

“Once we are designated a high community level, we will go back to requiring that everybody put on those masks,” Ferrer warned.

The number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 would have to increase substantially before L.A. County enters the “high” community level, Ferrer said.

“Our current rate of 3.4 new admissions per 100,000 residents remains well below the threshold for high community level, which is 10 or more new admissions per 100,000 people. However, this metric has been steadily increasing, and it's currently about two times higher than it was a month ago,” she said.

LA County’s Transportation Mask Mandate Will Be Extended

Citing the rise in reported cases, Ferrer said an extension to the county’s transportation mask mandate will likely be announced Friday. It is scheduled to expire this weekend.

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“It would really be, at this point, foolhardy to not extend those protections,” said, though she declined to say how much longer the mandate will stay in place.

The county health order has been in place since April 22, after a federal judge in Florida eliminated the mask mandate on public transportation and airplanes nationwide. (The U.S. Justice Department has appealed the ruling.)

In response, L.A. County health officials issued their own health order stipulating that everyone aged 2 and older must wear face masks in “transportation corridors,” regardless of vaccination status. The order is hampered by jurisdiction — air travelers are required to wear a mask inside local airports, but depending on the airline, not once they board the plane.

Masks must also still be worn in high risk places such as emergency shelters, doctor’s offices and hospitals, homeless shelters and prisons, and long-term care facilities such as nursing homes.

A line graph showing cases are highest in affluent areas of L.A. County.
Courtesy of the L.A. County Dept. of Public Health)

Affluent Neighborhoods See More Cases — For Now

Ferrer said case rates remain highest in affluent areas of the county — a similar pattern to one we saw at the beginning of the pandemic. Ferrer said it’s likely that steep increases in lower-resourced communities will follow, as it has in the past.

“We remain focused on reducing transmission across the county by strengthening safety protocols at work sites where many of our central and lower wage workers continue to work every day," she said, "and ensuring that all communities, especially those with the fewest resources, have excellent access to reliable information, vaccines, testing and now therapeutics."

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Jackie Fortiér helps Southern Californians understand the pandemic by identifying what's working and what's not in our health response.