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Masks Can Come Off In Some LA County Settings When COVID Transmission Drops To ‘Moderate’

A slide shows when masking requirements can be eased in L.A. County
(Courtesy of the L.A. County Dept. of Public Health)
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The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health on Thursday announced new criteria for lifting the county’s indoor mask mandate, after being pressured by supervisor Kathryn Barger to do away with it immediately.

But health department director Barbara Ferrer, speaking at her weekly press conference, said it would likely take weeks for the criteria to be met. While transmission remains high, everyone over the age of two must wear a mask indoors, regardless of vaccination status in L.A. County.

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“When transmission is lower, we will appropriately be relaxing some masking requirements. But we're not there yet,” Ferrer said. “Today we're reporting 11,548 new cases, which is about a quarter of the number that we reported several weeks ago when we hit our record high of nearly 46,000 cases in a single day.”

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The stepped approach allows for masks to come off outdoors at childcare facilities, K-12 schools and outdoor mega events after the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 drops below 2,500 for seven consecutive days.

Hospitalizations haven’t been that low since the end of December due to the omicron surge. Over the past week, L.A. County has averaged more than 3,700 hospitalizations per day. Currently, 3,398 people are hospitalized with COVID-19.

A line graph showing new COVID-19 cases declining in L.A. County, though still much higher than during previous surges.
(Courtesy of the L.A. County Dept. of Public Health)

Ferrer said they decided on the 2,500 patient number after consulting with area hospitals.

“The return of most hospitals and health care facilities to providing the full range of services needed by patients and residents would be an indication of reduced danger to our county residents,” Ferrer said.

Masks will still be required indoors at stores, offices, events and worksites such as restaurants and bars until community transmission drops to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s “moderate” category or lower for two consecutive weeks, and there are no emerging reports of significantly circulating new variants that threaten vaccine effectiveness.

Even when transmission drops, that doesn’t mean masks can come off everywhere. Face coverings will still be required indoors at schools, childcare facilities, health care settings, correctional facilities and shelters as required by state or local regulations. Public transit and transportation hubs such as airports are under federal jurisdiction.

Employers must continue to provide high-quality masks such as surgical masks or N-95s for employees working in close proximity until community transmission is low.

What Does 'Low' and 'Moderate' Transmission Mean?

The CDC's four-tiered system measures the level of community transmission in each county: low, moderate, substantial and high. A county's level of transmission is based on just two metrics: new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people and the positivity rate — both measured over the previous seven days. If a county has values in two different transmission levels, then the CDC uses the metric that is higher.

  • Low transmission is considered no more than 10 cases per 100,000 people, or a test positivity rate of less than 5%. 
  • Moderate transmission is 10 to 50 cases per 100,000 people, or a positivity rate between 5% and 8%. 
  • Substantial transmission is 50 to 100 cases per 100,000, or a positivity rate between 8% and 10%, 
  •  High transmission is 100 or more cases per 100,000 people or a positivity rate of 10% or higher.
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The average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus in the county was 8% as of Thursday. The county's cumulative seven-day case rate, as estimated by the CDC dropped to 1,500 cases per 100,000 residents. That means the county remains in the CDC’s “high” transmission category.
L.A. County averaged about 15,600 new coronavirus cases daily over the past week. That’s more than a quarter of the omicron variant peak of 44,000 new cases a day, and still on par with the peak of last winter’s devastating surge, which topped out at 16,000 new cases a day.

“As we move through the short term, masking will continue to be a key part of the post surge COVID-19 strategy,” Ferrer said.

About 78% of L.A. County residents 12 and older are fully vaccinated.

A line graph showing unvaccinated people die at far higher rates than vaccinated people from COVID-19.
(Courtesy of the L.A. County Dept. of Public Health)

Deaths Remain High

In the past week an average of about 70 deaths were reported daily from the virus in L.A. County.

“Despite the availability of vaccines and the dominance of omicron, which generally causes less severe disease than prior variants, COVID-19 deaths continue to far outstrip deaths due to other respiratory illnesses,” Ferrer said.

Between March 2020 and Dec. 2021, COVID-19 was the leading cause of death in L.A. County, killing 24,947 people. The vast majority of people who died were unvaccinated. Coronary heart disease killed 21,513 people during the same time period.

What questions do you have about the pandemic and health care?
Jackie Fortiér helps Southern Californians understand the pandemic by identifying what's working and what's not in our health response.