Masked People at Work - Photo courtesy of Cherry Deck on Unsplash

Los Angeles County health officials are expected to announce Thursday whether a mandatory indoor mask-wearing mandate will be imposed in response to elevated COVID-19 transmission and hospitalizations.

Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer indicated twice over the past week that plans to reimpose a masking mandate could be put on hold in light of recent stabilizing hospitalization figures and a drop in average daily infection numbers. She said earlier the mandate would be imposed if the county remains in the “high” virus activity level as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for two consecutive weeks.

The county entered the “high” category two weeks ago when the average daily rate of COVID-related hospital admissions rose above 10 per 100,000 residents. As of last Thursday, the rate was 11.7 admissions per 100,000 residents.

If the rate remains in the “high” level Thursday, the mandate could be imposed beginning Friday. But according to Ferrer, the county may delay the move if there’s a continuing downward trend in numbers, or if the rate of new virus-related hospital admissions is at least approaching the threshold level that would drop the county back to “medium” virus activity.

She told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that, given recent declines, “We may be positioned to pause the implementation of universal masking.”

Los Angeles County is the only jurisdiction in the state considering a masking mandate, even though dozens of other counties are also in the CDC’s “high” virus-activity level.

While Ferrer has defended the idea of a mandate — calling it a proven and simple tool for slowing transmission of the virus and protecting workers in indoor businesses — opposition to the concept has been rising.

On Wednesday, the city of El Segundo announced it would not enforce a county masking mandate, mirroring a decision made Monday night by the city of Beverly Hills.

The cities of Long Beach and Pasadena — both of which operate their own health departments separate from the county — announced Tuesday they will not issue mask mandates, even if the county does.

“The (Long Beach) Health Department strongly encourages people to practice personal responsibility and common-sense measures to protect themselves, their loved ones and the greater community from COVID-19,” according to a statement from Long Beach. “People are advised to mask indoors when in public places, conduct rapid testing before and three to five days after social gatherings and choose outdoor activities where possible.”

Both Long Beach and Pasadena officials said they would continue to monitor the COVID situation. Pasadena officials said they would “consider appropriate public health actions to protect our community as the situation changes.”

County Supervisor Kathryn Barger issued a statement Monday saying she will not support a mandate. She said she agrees that masks are an effective tool against virus spread, but does not believe imposing a mandate will have the desired effect.

“I am adamantly opposed to mandating the masking, because I truly do believe it’s going to have the opposite effect,” Barger said during Tuesday’s board meeting.

Supervisor Janice Hahn joined her in opposing a possible mandate, saying she fears imposing such a rule “will be very divisive for L.A. County.”

“I honestly believe there are a significant number of the population who are not willing to accept mask mandates at this point,” Hahn said. “And many of them, the ones that have contacted me, pointed out that we do have more tools now than we had at the beginning of the pandemic.

“… Personally I’m worried … that we’re losing the trust this time of a portion of the public that’s actually been with us up to this point,” she said.

Hahn suggested that the county consider simply expanding the list of places where masks are still required to include grocery stores and pharmacies, rather than all indoor spaces. Ferrer said her department would consider the idea.

Ferrer on Tuesday again confirmed that most pandemic-tracking metrics are down, noting that the average daily rate of new cases over the past week had fallen to about 6,100, down from 6,700 the prior week — although the county on Wednesday reported 7,316 new infections.

Virus-related hospitalizations have also stabilized over the past week, she said, as well as the daily number of fatalities — although she stressed that the latter number remained too high at about 14 fatalities per day. Another 20 deaths were reported Wednesday.

She said transmission of COVID-19 remains high across the county, and the virus is still a leading cause of death, killing more people in the first six months of the year than drug overdoses, the flu and traffic crashes combined. The number of cases announced by the county each day are also believed to be an undercount, since many people rely on at-home tests, the results of which are not always reported to health officials.

According to state figures, there were 1,280 COVID-positive patients in county hospitals as of Wednesday, down from 1,286 on Tuesday. Of those patients, 137 were being treated in intensive care, up from 134 a day earlier.

The 7,316 new COVID cases reported Wednesday, raised the cumulative total from throughout the pandemic to 3,279,517. The 20 deaths lifted the overall death toll to 32,674.

The average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was 16.2% as of Wednesday.

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