Masks - Photo courtesy of Unsplash

Los Angeles County’s public health director said Wednesday she sympathizes with people weary of calls for mask-wearing and caution against COVID-19 spread, but with case numbers still rising and new variants emerging, she said it would be a “mistake” to drop all precautions.

“I do know that most everyone is tired of the pandemic, tired of wearing masks and exhausted trying to deal with the uncertainty and the ever-changing guidance,” Barbara Ferrer told reporters during an online briefing Wednesday. “And it’s very tempting to minimize the impact of the virus to support our desire to return to our pre-pandemic lives.

“Unfortunately, I think that would be a mistake that would make it harder for us to embrace strategies that extend protections while minimizing disruptions. There continue to be sensible steps we can take to reduce risk and prevent serious illness and death for those most vulnerable.”

She again urged residents to wear masks when in crowded settings, even if they aren’t mandated. She also again pushed for people to get vaccinated and receive booster shots, and to stay home if they are feeling sick.

Ferrer reported another 2,484 COVID cases on Wednesday, reiterating that the average daily number of new infections in the county has increased by 200% over the past month. The new cases brought the county’s cumulative total from throughout the pandemic to 2,882,279.

The recent jump in cases has not yet translated into increases in hospitalizations and deaths. According to state figures, there were 248 COVID-positive patients in county hospitals as of Wednesday, up slightly from 236 on Tuesday. Of those patients, 27 were being treated in intensive care, up from 22 a day earlier.

Ferrer reported five more COVID deaths on Wednesday, lifting the virus-related death toll to 31,982.

As of Wednesday, the average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was 2.2%, up slightly from previous days but still low overall. The seven-day average daily rate of new cases in the county was 21 per 100,000 residents, up from 17 per 100,000 a week ago.

She noted that the BA.2 variant of COVID-19 and its offshoots now represent 96% of all local COVID infections that underwent special testing to identify variants. BA.2 is a subvariant of the Omicron strain of the virus that caused a sharp surge in cases during the winter months. The county, however, is already seeing rising numbers of cases identified as BA.2.12.1, which is an offshoot of BA.2. That offshoot now represents 8% of cases tested in the county, she said.

The county is also monitoring the progress of two more variants blamed for spiking case numbers in South Africa — BA.4 and BA.5. Ferrer said only one case of BA.4 has been detected in the county, and no BA.5 strains have been identified.

Ferrer offered a reminder that while indoor mask mandates have been lifted in most settings, face coverings are still required in health care facilities, homeless shelters, skilled nursing facilities, aboard transit vehicles and in transportation hubs like airports.

She conceded that enforcement of the masking rule at airports is a challenge, although she noted that inspectors who recently visited Los Angeles International Airport found that most employees were adhering to the rule.

“I think it’s harder for the disembarking passengers to understand the rules in L.A. County,” she said. “I have a lot of confidence that as the messaging continues, people will get more comfortable with the fact that they need to put their masks on once they get into the terminal areas.”

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