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With Omicron In Retreat, LA May Soon Scrap Masks

A line graph shows the steep decline in omicron cases and hospitalizations in LA County over the past week. The surge peaked in January.
Courtesy of the L.A. County Dept. of Public Health)
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With new omicron cases and related hospitalizations falling fast, Los Angeles County health officials are optimistic that the first stage of mask restrictions may be lifted as soon as next week.

On Thursday, 6,276 new cases were reported, and 81 deaths.

“As long as we don't see an increase, we can expect to launch our post-surge actions next Wednesday,” said the county's public health director Barbara Ferrer at a weekly press briefing Thursday.

Masks will no longer be required outdoors at child care 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. At that point, L.A. County health officials will consider the situation to be “post surge.”

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Currently, 2,464 COVID positive patients are hospitalized in L.A. County, the first time hospitalizations have been that low since December.

“I want to emphasize that post-surge does not mean the pandemic is over, or that transmission is low, or that there will not be additional unpredictable waves of surges in the future that will require integrated public health measures,” Ferrer said.

Even with recent declines, L.A. County remains in the “high” transmission category.

To adjust the standards for indoor spaces, such as offices and restaurants, the county plan requires lower community transmission levels. First, transmission must fall into the CDC’s moderate category — about 730 cases per day — for at least two weeks, or the vaccine for children six months to four years old must be available for eight weeks.

“I think it's possible to get to moderate transmission again fairly quickly,” Ferrer added. “Our case rate is dropping by an average of 3.5% every day. And if we can maintain that pace, we'd reach moderate transmission in 25 to 30 days.”

How Is Community Transmission Calculated?

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.

The average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus in Los Angeles County has dropped to 4.7% as of Thursday. The county's cumulative seven-day case rate, as estimated by the CDC, dropped to 622 cases per 100,000 residents.

A table outlining the when L.A. County mask restrictions will loosen as community transmission drops.
Courtesy of the L.A. County Dept. of Public Health)

L.A. Basin Health Depts. Unified In Mask Rollback Strategy

California is easing indoor mask rules for vaccinated people starting Feb. 16, but masks will stay in place in L.A. County for at least a few more weeks.

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Counties and municipalities are allowed to have more strict masking rules than the state. The health departments of Long Beach and Pasadena have said they will adhere to L.A. County’s guidelines. If no new variants of concern pop up, health officials say that criteria could be met in March.

The three health departments have had a universal indoor mask mandate for everyone over the age of two in place since July, when the delta surge began. State health officials didn’t impose a mask mandate until December, when the omicron variant began to surge. In January, the temporary order was extended another month when new COVID-19 cases exploded to the highest numbers California experienced during the pandemic, exceeding 46,000 in a single day.

Hospitals were again slammed with patients, while at the same time health workers tested positive for the virus at historic levels, putting immense strain on those who continued to work. The surge forced some L.A. hospitals to call on the state for help in the form of traveling nurses and respiratory therapists — and in some cases National Guard health workers — to plug the staffing gaps.

Now that the omicron surge is receding, state health officials decided to let the mask mandate expire.

But some health officials, such as L.A. County’s Ferrer, say essential workers will pay the price for lifting the mask mandate too early because of their frequent exposure to the virus while on the job.

“[These are] the same essential workers who from the beginning of the pandemic have had the most risk, the highest case rates, and unfortunately and tragically high hospitalization and death rates,” she said. “So let's not have that happen again in our rush to declare victory over the pandemic.”

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.