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LA Health Director Says The Next Six Weeks Are Critical

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Los Angeles County Public Health director Barbara Ferrer. (Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images)
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Even as coronavirus cases climb in parts of the United States, California is slowly lifting its pandemic restrictions. It's a welcome relief for Angelenos weary of locked venues and pleas to stay at home, but public health officials are worried.

For the first time since the color-coded tier system was put in place last fall, Los Angeles County is in the less restrictive orange tier, indicating fewer cases and spread, and allowing some indoor activities such as dining in a restaurant. On Tuesday, Governor Gavin Newsom announced that many coronavirus restrictions will lift on June 15 (although masking will still be required indoors), as long as cases remain low and the COVID-19 vaccine is readily available.

The move would eliminate the complex web of tiers and replace it with a statewide reopening of businesses to full capacity, although individual counties can still opt to have more restrictions depending on their circumstances. But the tantalizing prospect of summer barbeques and fireworks rests entirely on our behavior right now.

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A sign enforcing mask wearing on Manhattan Beach (Josie Huang/LAist)
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LAist spoke with Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer about a range of topics, including getting teenagers vaccinated and why this is such a critical time in the pandemic.

On The Potential Lifting Of Coronavirus Restrictions On June 15

I hear the promise of June 15 and a return to pre-pandemic times. I think many of the restrictions on capacity will disappear, but some of the basic infection control practices will be around for many weeks to come. We're going to need to make sure that we have masks to protect people who can't get vaccinated, like kids in schools. We've also got to wait and get a lot more information about vaccine effectiveness. The vaccines are so powerful right now. It's really good at protecting people from serious illness ... and from being hospitalized and from dying, but if 10% of everybody who's vaccinated can still become infected and we find out those people can still go ahead and and pass-on that infection, will need to continue to take care of each other by wearing masks.

On Vaccines Versus Variants

Part of me wants to just say, you know, folks, we are so very close right now. We are also so very much not there. If we're not particularly careful as we're doing more reopenings ... during these next six weeks, while we actually are able to accelerate the number of people who get vaccinated and have that protection, we could see an increase in cases. And we also could see, unfortunately, the dominance of some of these variants of concern, which are just more infectious. None of that would be good for us. And it would thwart our ability to get to that June 15 deadline. For the most part, everyone who dies [from COVID-19] from here on in is more than likely to be passing away because they weren't yet vaccinated. Our job is to keep everyone alive right now until they can get vaccinated.

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On Contact Tracing In LA County

We're averaging about 50% of the new cases that actually complete our interviews. So we're going to be piloting some additional efforts in some of the hardest communities where we will now have community health workers that will be able to go and visit and allow us to be able to identify close contacts and get in touch with them.

On Getting Teenagers The Pfizer Vaccine After April 15

I think what we're going to end up needing to do is have some designated sites where young people know they'll be able to get vaccinated. It is highly likely that we'll find a fair number of sites that will be able to partner with the schools and at least for 16- to 17-year-old students, that may be one of the easier strategies if we can get it to work, where they can have an identified location within their school district where they'd be able to get vaccinated.