First published in the July 28 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.
Los Angeles County may back away from its universal mask mandate should the test positivity rate and hospitalizations related to the coronavirus continue to decline as they have during the past week.
The county Department of Public Health informed the Board of Supervisors of the most recent metrics and said it could pause the implementation of a masking requirement if they see a significant decrease.
Health officials have been warning stakeholders of a mandate the past few weeks as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations soared due to the highly infectious BA.5 Omicron subvariant and anticipated the revised health order, which would require individuals 2 years and older to mask up in indoor public spaces, to go into effect Friday. An official announcement is expected from the county Thursday afternoon.
The injunction was not well received by residents and business owners, but L.A. Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said hope remains for the county to shift out of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers high community transmission level — a move that would justify a delay to the mask mandate.
Hospitalizations in L.A. County surpassed 1,300 on July 20 and has since gone down with 1,286 reported patients hospitalized Tuesday.
“It’s important to note that we had three instances earlier this spring and summer where we saw dips in cases that were followed shortly by increases,” Ferrer told supervisors Tuesday. “So, it is important for us to be cautious and prepared for layering in additional protections.”
Local health officials rely on the metric of hospital admission rate per 100,000 people over seven days to determine the transmission level. As of last July 20, L.A. County was at 11.7 new admissions per 100,000 people, which is well above the CDC’s threshold of high community transmission of 10 or more per 100,00 people.
A mask mandate would be triggered should the county remain in the high community transmission category and go into effect Friday, which would make Los Angeles the only county in California requiring individuals to mask up indoors. Some of the supervisors questioned Ferrer’s reasoning when other counties are experiencing similar coronavirus case rates and hospitalizations and not resorting to a masking requirement. Alameda County implemented a mask mandate in early June only to rescind it three weeks later.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose district includes La Cañada Flintridge, said she understands the benefits of wearing a mask for individuals but does not see data that supports a county-wide mandate.
“I am adamantly opposed to mandating the masking because I truly do believe it’s going to have the opposite effects,” Barger said. “We’re seeing, not a city in my district, but cities now taking votes to refuse to enforce [the mandate].”
Barger was referring to the recent decision from the Beverly Hills City Council not to have city staff enforce the county’s indoor mask requirement should one be implemented.
Supervisor Janice Hahn expressed a similar concern and worried that they could lose the trust of stakeholders.
“I worry if we try to impose it now, we will have such pushback … that maybe when we really, really, really need it like in the winter, if in fact we do have a serious surge where we really do need to bring the public back along with us, that we won’t be able to do that,” she said.
Ferrer stood firm on her position regarding masks and a possible mandate, saying that though COVID-19 numbers are nowhere near those from last summer or the winter surge, masking will curb transmission that is affecting work sites, especially those in health care.
Dr. Christina Ghaly, L.A. County’s health services director, backed her colleague’s assessment and said she’s not concerned so much about overwhelming the health care system but about staffing shortages due to sickness from the disease.
“The biggest stress on the hospitals right now is the number of staff who are calling out,” Ghaly said. “In hospitals, that means that beds are closed or that it might take longer to be seen in an emergency department, and there are several ways in which there is an impact on facilities.”
Ferrer added that another major concern for her is the death rate. So far this year, COVID-19 is the leading cause of death in L.A. County, which averaged an alarming 16 deaths per day between July 19-26.
“I think the question everyone has to ask themselves is how much death do you want to tolerate before you ask people during these extraordinary times of high transmission to put their masks back on?” Ferrer told supervisors. “I’m definitely saying clearly out loud to everyone and have been for weeks the death rate right now from COVID is too high. I think we need to do a better job.”