The number of COVID-19-positive patients in Los Angeles County hospitals fell below 2,500 Thursday, opening the door for a possible lifting of the county’s outdoor mask-wearing mandate as early as next week for large events, schools and childcare centers.

According to state figures, there were 2,464 COVID-positive patients in local hospitals as of Thursday, down from 2,597 on Wednesday. Of those patients, 492 were being treated in intensive care, a drop from 528 a day earlier.

Under guidelines announced last week by county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, if the hospitalization number stays below 2,500 for seven consecutive days, the county will lift its mask mandate for outdoor “mega-events” and outdoors at schools and childcare centers.

The indoor masking mandate, however, will remain in place until much stricter criteria are met, despite the state of California lifting its indoor mask requirement for vaccinated people next week. According to Ferrer, the county’s mask rule will not be lifted until the county’s virus-transmission rate falls to the “moderate” level as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for two straight weeks, or until COVID vaccines have been available to children under 5 years old for eight weeks.

Those guidelines mean indoor masking will remain a requirement until at least March, but more likely at least April.

Reaching the CDC’s “moderate” designation requires the county to have a cumulative, seven-day new case rate of less than 50 per 100,000 residents. According to the CDC’s website, the county’s rate was 768 per 100,000 as of Wednesday. That’s down from 1,098 per 100,000 residents on Monday.

Vaccines for children under age 5 could potentially be approved by the end of the month, Ferrer said.

The county is so far sticking to that criteria, despite criticism by county Supervisor Kathryn Barger this week that the criteria was too stringent, and “not even realistic.” She said the county should align with the state to lessen confusion among residents.

The county on Wednesday reported another 103 COVID-related deaths — one of the highest daily totals in the past year — raising the overall death toll to 29,609.

Another 5,100 new cases were also confirmed, giving the county a pandemic total of 2,740,700.

The average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was 5% as of Wednesday, a rate that has been holding steady each day this week.

The county Department of Public Health also reported continued drops in infection rates among students and staff at schools. For the week ending Feb. 4, the testing-positive rate fell to 2.6% for schools, down from 4.4% a week earlier.

“The decline in positive tests and test positivity suggests that schools continue to successfully implement recommended strategies that limit spread, such as screening and response testing, ensuring compliance with isolation and quarantine requirements, following recommended infection control guidelines, and as required by the state, wearing well-fitting masks,” Ferrer said in a statement Wednesday. “As always, we are grateful for the hard work of school superintendents, labor partners and staff, parents and students to implement these strategies that promote safety at schools and help us move closer to our post-surge phase and less transmission.”

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