L.A. County on track to relax some outdoor mask rules

The number of coronavirus-positive patients hospitalized in Los Angeles County has dropped below 2,500, putting the region on track to potentially relax some outdoor masking rules next week.

Should COVID-19 hospitalizations remain under this threshold for seven consecutive days, county health officials will lift face covering requirements at outdoor “mega-events” — including those at venues such as the Hollywood Bowl, Dodger Stadium, SoFi Stadium and Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum — and outdoor spaces at K-12 schools and childcare settings.

That countdown began Wednesday, according to state data released Thursday.

While past is not always prologue, it seems likely L.A. County will be able to lift those select rules next Wednesday, based on recent trends. In any case, the requirement will still be in force for Sunday’s Super Bowl at SoFi.

There are more than 1,000 fewer coronavirus-positive people hospitalized countywide now than at the beginning of February. And the latest hospital census is only about half that recorded at the height of the Omicron variant surge last month.

According to state data released Thursday, the number of coronavirus-positive hospital patients in L.A. County on Wednesday was 2,464 — down 38% from the previous Wednesday, when there were 3,398 patients.

The number peaked this winter, when 4,814 coronavirus-positive patients were in hospitals on Jan. 19. That’s significantly higher than the summer Delta surge peak of 1,790, recorded Aug. 17, but still lower than last winter’s peak of 8,098, a time when hospital morgues were overflowing.

Hospitals throughout Southern California have suffered so much strain that many have been forced to postpone scheduled surgeries and procedures, and some ambulances were delayed responding to 911 calls. L.A. County’s public hospitals are still suffering staffing shortages related to the coronavirus, and hospitals are not expected to fully recover from the Omicron peak for a couple of months.

“One of the most harmful consequences of this winter surge has been the extraordinary pressure on the healthcare system, forcing many hospitals to postpone routine services and divert patients to other settings,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the Board of Supervisors earlier this week. “The return of most hospitals and healthcare facilities to providing the full range of services needed by patients and residents is an important indication of reduced danger to the county.”

However, wider relaxation of the county’s mask rules remains a ways off.

Effective next Wednesday, California will officially lift the 2-month-old statewide requirement that all residents mask up in indoor public spaces.

After that date, masks will still be required for unvaccinated Californians indoors and for everyone in certain settings, such as nursing homes or while aboard public transit.

All K-12 students and staff also will still be required to wear masks indoors when at school, though state officials have indicated that guidance may soon change.

“We are getting closer and closer to making public an announcement on mask wearing in our public schools, and no one looks forward to that more than I do,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday. “And, hopefully, in a matter of days, we’ll be putting that out.”

While many counties have said they plan to immediately align with the state’s revised indoor-masking guidance, L.A. County will keep that rule in place for at least a few more weeks.

When the county will follow suit hinges on one of two developments: The county either needs to record two straight weeks of “moderate” coronavirus transmission as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; or COVID-19 vaccines must have been available for children ages 6 months to 4 years for eight weeks.

L.A. County’s daily tally of new cases would need to fall below 730 to meet the CDC definition. According to a Times analysis of state data, L.A. County is averaging about 7,100 cases a day over the past week.

L.A. County is seeing its daily coronavirus case rate cut in half every week, Ferrer said. At this rate, according to a Times analysis, L.A. County would hit the goal in early March, meaning that — as long as daily case rates remain under the goal for two consecutive weeks — the local indoor mask mandate could be lifted by late March, around the start of spring.

If L.A. County’s descent in daily coronavirus cases hits a snag, the other pathway to lift the mask mandate — tied to the release of vaccines for children under the age of 5 — will be triggered soon.

An advisory panel to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday will consider approving the vaccine for the youngest children, and an advisory panel to the CDC is meeting the following week.

That means vaccines could become available to this age group by the end of February, which would allow L.A. County to lift its mask order by the end of April.

Some have criticized L.A. County’s approach to lifting restrictions as too slow, continuing to subject residents and businesses to a burden that won’t be shared by the vast majority of other Californians.

While County Supervisor Kathryn Barger is “in support of essential measures,” she said she thinks “committing to keeping these in place until late spring is inconsistent with the public health approaches from across the state and the country.”

However, Ferrer said it’s important to recognize that, for all the recent progress, coronavirus transmission remains elevated throughout the region.

We’re not trying to set the bar too high at all. We’re actually trying to set a reasonable bar that says to us: It’s much safer for our workers and our most vulnerable people to have masks off when there’s not as much transmission,” she said.

A majority of supervisors have backed Ferrer’s approach, saying they think it’s prudent to keep masks on until coronavirus transmission falls to more modest levels.

“We’ve been wearing masks now for two years. I think that we can probably do it for another month or two,” Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said, voicing concern about lifting the mask mandate so early that it would expose frontline workers to maskless customers.

The county’s criteria match the CDC recommendation that vaccinated people in indoor public settings wear masks when there are 50 or more cases a week for every 100,000 residents.

L.A. County last achieved this moderate level of transmission last year, between mid-March and mid-July, ending when the Delta variant began spreading quickly.

Santa Clara County has also decided to retain its local indoor mask mandate, even as most nearby counties in the San Francisco Bay Area will align with the state’s more permissive approach. But Santa Clara County’s goal is more permissive than L.A. County’s: getting to under 200 cases a week for every 100,000 residents, and remaining there for a week, a feat officials suspect they can reach in early March.

“If there’s a way to rethink what that threshold is and not align fully with CDC, I’m completely open to that,” Ferrer said. “What I think our team doesn’t feel comfortable with … is an arbitrary date that’s actually not tied to the conditions in the community. And we feel like our risk is just way too big right now with the rate that we’re at.”

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