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L.A. County COVID-19 transmission rate increases as officials await Labor Day numbers

A sign on a bus reminds passengers to wear masks.
A sign reminds bus passengers to wear masks.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

There have been 18% more deaths in Los Angeles County this year than over the same time period in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Wednesday that although not every death in 2020 has been related to COVID-19, the spike translates to “thousands of deaths that would not have otherwise occurred” without the virus.

Ferrer said the data disproves theories that the virus is no more serious than influenza.

The novel coronavirus has killed more than 6,000 people in the county. Officials announced 31 additional deaths Wednesday and 1,265 cases, totaling more than 260,200 confirmed infections.

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In recent weeks, officials have reported a decline in infections, hospitalizations and deaths. The daily case count is currently seven cases per 100,000, and the seven-day average positivity rate is 3% — a notable drop from a reported 8% in July. Those low metrics could propel the county forward on the state’s reopening system if they hold for two consecutive weeks.

But over the past week, the number of cases has increased slightly, and the projected transmission rate has crept past 1% to 1.02%. It’s possible those numbers are early indicators that there will be a spike in infections related to Labor Day weekend activity, but Ferrer said officials are monitoring data through the end of the week to assess whether that may be the reality.

“This is a crucial week for us,” she said.

The county has continued to see thousands of testing slots go unfilled. Wildfires, heat and bad air quality that kept people inside in recent weeks may have contributed to that decline, Health and Human Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly said. The drop in testing is a concern for the county’s understanding of the true rate of infections and how widespread the virus remains.

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And while a metric such as hospitalizations is low, it is a lagging indicator for understanding the true scope of the virus because case counts spike before hospitalizations or deaths.

In July, for example, the county saw a relatively low number of hospitalizations before a massive spike occurred following the Fourth of July holiday.

“I think we learned a lot,” Ferrer said about how past experiences have informed officials’ current understanding of the virus.

Under new statewide guidance announced Tuesday, the county is now permitted to open indoor operations at nail salons. Health officials are working with the Board of Supervisors to determine what that timeline for reopening may look like. Officials have previously said that any changes would not come until late September, following possible Labor Day weekend data.


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