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L.A. County strongly recommends indoor masking as COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations jump

A sign at a Chinatown business reminds customers to wear a mask.
A sign at a Chinatown business reminds customers to wear a face covering in July 2021. L.A. County is now strongly recommending indoor masking as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations climb.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Amid a sustained rise in coronavirus transmission, Los Angeles County is once again strongly recommending wearing a mask in indoor public spaces.

The daily number of newly reported cases has jumped almost 70% from a month ago, though case rates are still well shy of previous waves and officials continue to tout the benefits of available vaccines and therapeutics in warding off the worst COVID-19 has to offer.

However, the recent rise prompted the county to strengthen its call for indoor masking — from saying the practice is a matter of individual preference to advising it.

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“Indoor masking is, as it has been in the past during times of elevated transmission, strongly recommended for all individuals,” county health officer Dr. Muntu Davis said Thursday.

Health officials fear that low uptake of the updated COVID-19 bivalent booster will result in needless coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths in the coming months.

Specifically, the county now encourages individuals to wear a well-fitting, high-quality mask in public indoor spaces; when aboard public transit; in correctional and detention facilities; and in homeless and emergency shelters.

While still optional in those settings, masks remain mandatory in healthcare and congregate care facilities, as well as for those who have been exposed to COVID-19 during the last 10 days, according to Davis.

Individual sites and venues can also implement their own mask rules.

The stronger recommendation comes as the county continues to see increases in newly reported coronavirus cases and coronavirus-positive hospitalizations after a lengthy lull.

COVID-19 was the second leading cause of death in Los Angeles County in the first six months of 2022, illustrating the outsized impact the pandemic has had on mortality rates.

Over the last week, about 1,466 new cases a day have been reported countywide. That is nearly 70% higher than the autumn low of 869 cases a day, set for the week that ended Oct. 16.

On a per capita basis, L.A. County is now recording more than 100 coronavirus cases a week for every 100,000 residents, up from the autumn low of about 60.

Under a previously established plan, exceeding that mark would prompt the county to strengthen its masking recommendation.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a weekly rate of 100 or more coronavirus cases for every 100,000 residents is considered a high rate of transmission.

Other highly populated counties in California with a case rate higher than L.A.'s include San Francisco, Alameda and Sacramento. The rate in San Francisco is now high enough that Dr. Robert Wachter, chair of UC San Francisco’s Department of Medicine, said on Twitter that he has decided to no longer dine indoors at restaurants.

Reported case figures are almost assuredly an undercount, as many residents test at home or opt against testing completely.

A confluence of respiratory illnesses has some California officials warning of a possible triple threat that could strain healthcare systems.

Hospitalizations, too, are on the rise. As of Wednesday, 648 coronavirus-positive patients were hospitalized countywide, up from 388 at the end of October.

L.A. County officials have routinely estimated that roughly 40% of those patients are actually admitted for COVID-19, with the remainder incidentally testing positive after seeking care for another reason.

But a jump in COVID-19 transmission could compound the strain the healthcare system is already feeling from heightened circulation of other respiratory illnesses — namely the flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

“With multiple respiratory illnesses currently at high levels, we want to stay aware of any increases in COVID cases that can contribute to the strain on our healthcare system,” Davis said.

Though masks are no longer required in most settings, many health officials and experts have continued to tout the benefits of wearing them — especially heading into the winter, when the coronavirus and other respiratory illnesses typically ramp up.

“Masks will provide protection against RSV and flu the same way they provide protection against COVID transmission,” Davis said.

Regular handwashing, wiping down frequently touched surfaces, covering up sneezes and coughs and holding events outside — or at least maximizing ventilation for those held indoors — can also help lessen the chance of transmission spread at events and gatherings, officials say.

Perhaps their biggest piece of advice, though, is to get vaccinated against both COVID-19 and the flu.

Flu season’s positivity rate in Los Angeles County is at 25%, up from 13% a week ago, as RSV and COVID are still in circulation.

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said he thinks about how far the state has come in its fight against the pandemic. Gatherings and events that might have been disallowed or infeasible in years past are back on the calendar.

“I know that I continue to look forward to this holiday and gathering with my mom and siblings and extended family and friends,” he said Thursday. “And then I also think about, for the sake of our youngest Californians and other vulnerable Californians who could get severely sick after a respiratory illness, how important it is to gather in ways that might reduce risks of getting sick yourself or spreading infection to others.”


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