As virus cases drop, when might the mandatory mask order in L.A. County end?
Los Angeles County has made tremendous progress in its battle against the coronavirus, but one of the tools officials credit most with helping turn the tide — a countywide indoor mask mandate — doesn’t seem likely to go away anytime soon.
While coronavirus case rates have dropped significantly in recent weeks in L.A. County, health officials say transmission is still too elevated to lift the indoor mask order.
L.A. County is considered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to have substantial community transmission, the second-worst category on the agency’s four-tier scale, noted by the orange color on the agency’s website. The worst level is high community transmission, colored in red.
The CDC recommends that even fully vaccinated people wear masks in indoor public settings in areas of substantial or high transmission.
As of Thursday afternoon, the county was reporting 98.88 weekly coronavirus cases for every 100,000 residents, CDC data show.
To progress to the next tier — moderate community transmission, colored yellow on the CDC’s maps — the county would have to record fewer than 50 weekly cases for every 100,000 residents, a threshold L.A. County did dip below between last winter’s surge and the Delta variant wave that struck over the summer.
That means L.A. County’s weekly coronavirus case rate would need to be reduced nearly in half to achieve moderate community transmission. That’s unlikely to happen anytime soon; it took L.A. County a month — from the end of August to the end of September — for the weekly case rate to fall from about 200 weekly cases for every 100,000 residents to 100.
Health officials in the nation’s most populous county have not indicated a specific metric or criteria that would signal an end to the mandate that people wear face coverings in indoor public settings.
Instead, lifting that order will be based on several factors, including the extent of community spread and how many residents are vaccinated.
“The most important measure that we’re looking at is getting back to low transmission,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said during a briefing Thursday. “Obviously, the lower the transmission, the less virus is circulating, the less chances we all have of either getting infected or infecting others.”
L.A. County was the first in California to issue a new indoor mask mandate in response to the latest coronavirus wave in mid-July. The rules, which a number of other counties have since adopted, stipulate that residents have to wear masks in indoor businesses, venues or other public spaces, even if they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19.
June, the month in which L.A. County and the rest of California abandoned indoor masking rules, coincided with the proliferation of the highly infectious Delta variant, resulting in a significant increase in disease transmission and hospitalization, but still far below the heights of the devastating winter surge.
Statewide, face coverings are required indoors for those who are unvaccinated. But California only recommends — and does not require — vaccinated residents to do the same.
Officials have regularly credited L.A. County’s early readoption of mask rules with helping gain the upper hand on the Delta variant.
To even consider lifting the mask mandate, public health officials would want to see coronavirus transmission levels fall to moderate levels as defined by the CDC, Dr. Muntu Davis, L.A. County’s health officer, said during a town hall meeting last week.
“We want to see the county out of high or substantial community transmission of COVID-19 before we look at removing or lifting that requirement” for wearing masks in indoor public settings, Davis said. Until L.A. County can get to that point, he said, it would be prudent to maintain other layers of protection against the virus.
Earlier this week, Santa Cruz County lifted its indoor face covering mandate after the region momentarily reached the moderate level of community transmission, as defined by the CDC.
“Face coverings and vaccinations continue to be the best way to stop the spread of COVID-19 and protect yourself and loved ones from infection,” officials wrote in a statement. “It is strongly recommended that face coverings continue to be worn in all indoor spaces.”
As of Thursday, however, Santa Cruz County had slid back into the substantial community transmission category.
Ferrer noted Thursday that “we’ve indicated from the beginning that when transmission was lower, we would be considering lifting the masking mandate.”
But, she added, “if we have variants of concern that are highly infectious, it might not be the appropriate time to go ahead and lift those mask mandates if you don’t have much higher coverage by vaccinations.”
Some elected officials in California have asked health officials to more specifically define when they might ease mask requirements. “It’s really important to all of us to be able to maintain public trust. And I’m very concerned that without an end game or a goal, that trust becomes more and more frayed,” Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg said at a public meeting in late August.
Dr. Sara Cody, the Santa Clara County public health director and health officer, said, “We would need to see our hospitals settle down, our cases low and flat, and some stability before we would recommend taking away this very important prevention measure.”
Like Santa Cruz County, Santa Clara County was designated as being in the moderate category earlier this week, but slid back into a worse tier later in the week.
The Delta variant, the most transmissible version of the coronavirus yet, remains the dominant strain circulating countywide.
Over the last week, Los Angeles County has reported an average of 1,307 new coronavirus cases per day — down about 29% from two weeks ago, according to data compiled by The Times.
During that time, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 countywide has fallen from 1,156 to 872.
Some experts have suggested that mask requirements can be eased when there are five or fewer COVID-19 patients in hospitals for every 100,000 residents. In L.A. County, however, there are nine hospitalized COVID-19 patients for every 100,000 residents.
The average number of daily COVID-19 deaths also has shrunk by about 28% over the last two weeks. Even with that decrease, an average of two dozen Angelenos are still falling victim to the pandemic every day.
“These are largely preventable deaths, and they remain a tragic reminder of this virus’ destructive potential, particularly among those unvaccinated,” Ferrer said.
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