With case numbers falling and vaccinations rising, Los Angeles County’s average number of people hospitalized due to COVID-19 has fallen to its lowest point since the onset of the pandemic, health officials said Friday.

According to the Department of Public Health, the county’s five-day average daily number of people hospitalized due to COVID was 389 as of Friday. County health and elected officials have been touting vaccinations as the key to keeping hospital beds empty, noting that inoculated residents are highly protected from infection, but even if they do still contract the virus, they are extremely unlikely to wind up hospitalized.

“We see the power of vaccinations in our low metrics and reduced transmission,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement Friday. “It is important to remember those who remain unvaccinated are at a greater risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 and a variant of concern.

“If you’ve already been vaccinated, encourage your family, friends and neighbors to get vaccinated if they haven’t done so already,” she said. “Many COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths can be avoided now that we have vaccines available. Vaccines are the best protection from COVID-19.”

According to state figures, there were 379 people hospitalized due to COVID as of Friday in Los Angeles County, with 86 people being treated in intensive care.

The county reported an additional 16 COVID deaths on Friday, while Long Beach added one, raising the overall death toll from throughout the pandemic to 23,981. Long Beach officials noted that the new fatality reported Friday actually occurred in January. There has not been a COVID-related death in Long Beach since April 17.

Another 421 cases were also confirmed by the county, while Long Beach reported 25 and Pasadena 7, lifting the pandemic total to 1,235,150.

Demand for COVID-19 vaccinations has dropped off in the county over the past week. Ferrer said the number of shots administered in the county last week fell about 25% from the previous week. As a result, most vaccination sites, including all of the ones operated by the county, are offering shots without appointments.

The county has reduced the size of its four large-scale vaccination sites, but Ferrer said they would remain open, despite a decision by Orange County officials to close their large sites.

Ferrer said Thursday the county does not want to prematurely close the large-scale sites without ensuring the communities in which they’re located will still have easy access to vaccinations. She also noted that the federal government could open vaccinations to youth age 12-15 as early as next week, potentially increasing demand for the Pfizer vaccine, which has cold-storage requirements the county is equipped to meet.

“So that will play into our decision as well,” she said. “I don’t think we have any intent at this moment to close any of our sites. What we’re doing is, we’re looking very carefully at how many doses we’re administering at those sites, but also what role we’re playing in the community. Who’s coming? If we were to close that site, how easy is it for somebody to go somewhere else to get their vaccines?”

She added that the county sites are still administering about 1,000 vaccinations a day.

“That’s a lot of vaccines,” she said. “So before we close anything or even think about closing anything, I want to make sure that there’s plenty of places within a mile or two of where we are where people can continue to get vaccinated.”

As of Sunday, 39% of county residents have been fully vaccinated — 67% among residents age 65 and older and 33% among those 16 to 64.

She stressed again that it’s uncertain exactly what percentage the county will need to reach to achieve so-called “herd immunity,” but the goal is to get the number as high as possible. Health officials have said previously they were targeting an 80% vaccination rate.

Latino and Black residents continue to have the lowest rate of being vaccinated. Ferrer showed statistics Thursday indicating that only 18% of Black men aged 16 to 29 had received at least one vaccine dose so far, and 20% of Black women in that age group. Only 30% of Black men and women aged 30 to 49 have received at least one dose.

The percentage of Black and Latino residents being vaccinated has improved greatly since February, with a 593% increase in vaccination rates among Latina/o residents aged 16 and up, and a 414% rise in the vaccination rate among Black residents 16 and over.

Despite the large increases, those populations still have the lowest overall rate of vaccination, with just 37% of the eligible Black population vaccinated, and 40% of the Latina/o population.

Ferrer stressed the importance of vaccinations, particularly as more people start intermingling with this week’s loosening of health restrictions in accordance with the county’s move to the least-restrictive yellow tier of the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy.

Los Angeles is the only Southern California county to advance to the yellow tier. The rest of the region remains in the slightly more restrictive orange tier.

Asked why L.A. appears to be outpacing neighboring counties in reducing case rates, Ferrer credited residents and businesses for adhering to health guidelines. But she also said the winter surge in infections is also a contributing factor the current low case numbers.

“We had a devastating surge here with huge numbers of people that got infected, and many of those people are still carrying around some natural immunity,” she said.

“The unfortunate thing about that natural immunity is that it is going to wane over time. It’s really important that people know that, yes, you have some protection if you were already infected, if you already got sick. But that protection diminishes fairly quickly over time. And that’s why we urge everybody who’s already been infected to come in and get vaccinated. But certainly for now, I think it has helped us in the spring keep our numbers down.”

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