A doctor's mask and gloves. Photo via Pixabay.

Los Angeles County’s COVID-19 indoor mask-wearing mandate will remain in place, despite the state lifting its requirement for vaccinated people next week, but county Supervisor Kathryn Barger renewed her call for a re-evaluation of the local rule, saying it will create confusion among residents.

Barger also said the criteria put forward by the county Department of Public Health for phasing out the requirement will mean continued mask-wearing possibly into May.

“When you look at the numbers you put out, I feel that it’s not even realistic,” Barger told county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer during Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. “We’d have to completely eliminate COVID to be a point of lifting most of these restrictions.”

Last week, Ferrer unveiled metrics for a possible relaxing of the county’s masking orders, saying the mandate will be dropped at outdoor “mega-events” and outdoors at schools and child care centers if COVID-positive hospitalizations in the county fall below 2,500 for seven consecutive days.

As of Tuesday, there were 2,702 COVID-positive patients in county hospitals.

Lifting the indoor masking requirement in the county will require a more stringent standard. According to Ferrer, that requirement will not be lifted until the county’s level of transmission falls to the “moderate” level as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and stays there for two straight weeks.

Reaching the “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 1,098 per 100,000 residents as of Monday.

In addition to maintaining the “moderate” rate for two weeks, indoor mask-wearing requirements will only be lifted if there aren’t any newly circulating “variants of concern” of the COVID virus, Ferrer said.

On Tuesday, she said the county will also consider lifting the indoor mask mandate once COVID vaccines are available to children under age 5 for eight weeks. Ferrer said that availability could begin by the end of February.

But Barger insisted Tuesday that it creates confusion and frustration among residents for the county to deviate from the state on such an important issue. The state announced Monday it will lift the mask mandate for vaccinated people in many indoor settings at the end of the day Feb. 15. Gov. Gavin Newsom said the move is the result of a 65% drop in the infection rate since the peak of the winter surge caused by the Omicron variant of COVID-19, as well as a stabilization in hospitalization numbers.

But he stressed that “unvaccinated people will still need to wear masks indoors.” The mask-wearing requirement will also remain in effect for everyone in select indoor locations, such as public transit centers, airports, schools, emergency shelters, healthcare facilities, correctional facilities, homeless shelters and long-term care and senior-care facilities.

Unvaccinated people will have to continue wearing masks in indoor settings such as retail stores, restaurants, theaters and government offices.

Despite the state action, however, the county can still maintain its own local regulation.

Barger said she finds it “very frustrating again that we are being the most restrictive without the science to back that up,” adding that she is “trying to figure out what the state knows that we don’t.”

Ferrer said she recognized the frustration that varying requirements can create among residents, but she said COVID transmission locally just remains too high to ease up on the vaccine mandate. She acknowledged that the county is seeing rapid improvements in its pandemic metrics, saying the “numbers are dropping rapidly.”

“There’s no way this is a forever (mandate),” she said.

But she said lifting protective measures like mask-wearing too soon could reverse current progress being made.

“The decline continues if the protections are in place that help us limit transmission,” Ferrer said. “When we remove a lot of those … we tend to see our numbers go back up.”

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said she supported the county’s decision to stick with the mask mandate, calling the metrics outlined by Ferrer a “very thoughtful approach” that “actually takes the real data in Los Angeles County into account, not what Sacramento thinks should be a flat number or approach for the whole state.”

Ferrer also noted that when the county does determine that the winter surge of cases — fueled by the infectious Omicron variant of COVID — is over, it will not mean the pandemic is over. She said other restrictions will remain in place, including vaccination-verification or negative-testing requirements at outdoor and indoor events.

The 2,702 COVID-positive patients in county hospitals as of Tuesday was down from 2,773 on Monday. The number of those patients in intensive care was 547 as of Tuesday, down from 592 Monday.

Also Tuesday, the county reported another 51 virus-related deaths and 4,198 new COVID cases.

The 51 new deaths lifted the county’s COVID death toll to 29,506, while the new infections gave the county a cumulative total from throughout the pandemic of 2,735,688.

The rolling average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was 5% as of Tuesday, the same as Monday.

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