Breaking ranks with her county’s public health agency, Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger has called on the governor to immediately relax COVID-19 mask-wearing requirements to align with eased guidelines announced by federal authorities for fully vaccinated people.
“Los Angeles County has made tremendous progress vaccinating residents, including those in our hard-hit communities,” Barger said in a statement. “Furthermore, our positivity rate is less than 1% and our case rate remains low. While we still want to keep our communities safe, I am encouraged by the new guidance from the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and believe that the state and Los Angeles County should immediately align with the new federal recommendations.”
The CDC released guidance Thursday saying people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can largely stop wearing masks in most indoor and outdoor situations. The new CDC guidance does not completely drop mask recommendations for vaccinated people. Face coverings are still recommended in some settings — such as aboard planes and buses or in crowded settings such as hospitals.
The announcement, however, has set off confusion, since many states and local jurisdictions — including California and Los Angeles County — still have mask requirements in place. The CDC only releases general guidance, but individual jurisdictions can impose restrictions based on local virus circumstances.
L.A. County requirements allow fully vaccinated residents to shed masks while indoors with other fully vaccinated people. But mask mandates remain in place for everyone working at or patronizing businesses — such as grocery stores, restaurants or retail shops.
County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the state and county were reviewing the new CDC guidance, but changes in local regulations were unlikely to occur for at least another week. She stressed that mask mandates remain in place largely to protect workers and customers at worksites, and state occupational health and safety regulators need to set policy for masking and social distancing in the workplace.
Ferrer said Cal-OSHA regulators are set to meet next Thursday to consider a set of recommended workplace requirements. And until that happens, people will still be required to wear masks in such indoor settings.
“I know people are going to be impatient now and they’re going to say, `No, time to get on this. Time to just eliminate all these requirements around masking,”’ Ferrer said. “But that wasn’t the intent, I don’t think, of the CDC. I think CDC wrote in multiple places that people really do need to adhere to worker protections and state and local directives. It’s important for us to remember that we do need to protect workers, particularly those workers that are in essential work environments.”
In a letter sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom Friday, Barger noted that the county cannot ease its restrictions until the state takes action.
“As we return to normalcy and rapidly increase vaccinations, I believe it is appropriate for CDPH (California Department of Public Health) and Cal-OSHA to change the existing distancing and masking requirements in alignment with the CDC,” Barger wrote.
She added that the county “is committed to implementing safe, sensible directives that still protect our recovery and prevent regression to high positive case rates. We especially want to ensure protections for workers, particularly those who work indoors, including on public transportation and in schools, large venues and congregate housing such as jails, shelters and skilled nursing facilities.”
The masking issue is likely to become thornier in coming days, possibly putting merchants in the unenviable position of trying to determine which workers — and which customers — are fully vaccinated. Ferrer noted there is no standardized system for verifying vaccination status, opening the door for people who are not vaccinated to simply shed their masks, knowing there is no process for proving whether they’ve been inoculated.
Hoping to dispel any possible confusion among travelers, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a statement Friday noting that “at this time if you travel, you are still required to wear a mask on planes, buses, trains and other forms of public transportation traveling into, within or out of the United States, and in U.S. transportation hubs such as airports and stations.”
COVID vaccinations efforts expanded this week to include youth aged 12-15. Most providers in the county began offering shots to that age group on Thursday, but the city of Los Angeles’ sites did not start until Friday.
Vaccinations are now available appointment-free at most sites in the county.
Ferrer said Thursday there are roughly 500,000 county residents aged 12 to 15.
“It is a key group of individuals for us to reach so that we can increase our coverage in terms of the county’s total population,” Ferrer said Thursday.
She noted that while younger residents have consistently had lower numbers of COVID infections during the pandemic, infections do happen. She said that during COVID surges experienced by the county, between 10% and 17% of cases were occurring in people under age 18.
“So as a reminder, it’s important to note that there are in fact cases among children and that children are particularly vulnerable whenever we see an increase in community transmission,” she said. “So they, just like us, benefit from keeping community transmission rates down very low.”
The county on Friday confirmed another 17 COVID-19 deaths, lifting the death toll from throughout the pandemic to 24,074.
Another 583 COVID infections were also confirmed by the county, but health officials said about 300 of those cases actually dated back to January and were the result of a reporting backlog by a single provider. Long Beach health officials reported 31 more cases Friday, while Pasadena reported two. The new cases lifted the countywide pandemic total to 1,237,021.
According to state figures, there were 347 people hospitalized in the county due to COVID as of Friday, down from 366 on Thursday, with 78 people in intensive care, down from 85 on Thursday.