COVID-19 testing
COVID-19 testing near LAX. MyNewsLA photo

The number of COVID-19-positive people hospitalized in Los Angeles County dropped again, according to the latest data, helping move the county toward this week’s anticipated lifting of its indoor mask-wearing mandate.

According to state figures, there were 907 COVID-positive patients in county hospitals as of Wednesday, down from 927 on Tuesday. Of those patients, 157 were being treated in intensive care, down from 174 the previous day.

The downward trend in hospital numbers is contributing to what is expected to be a major shift in COVID-19 response policy in the county. On Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to release its weekly update of virus activity in communities across the country. Last week, that data — which is based largely on hospital admissions and bed availability — placed Los Angeles County in the “high” category of virus activity, meaning a continued recommendation for mask wearing.

But county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said earlier this week that when the CDC issues its updated numbers Thursday, the county is expected to fall into the agency’s medium- or low-risk category, removing the federal recommendation for masks in most indoor settings.

If that occurs, Ferrer said the county will issue a new Health Officer Order — taking effect Friday — that removes the county’s long-standing mandate for people to wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status. That move will put the county in alignment with the state, which dropped its mask mandate on Tuesday.

Mask-wearing, however, will continue to be “strongly recommended,” particularly in crowded settings or while interacting with people at higher risk of severe illness from the virus.

“Despite the encouraging news, people who are unvaccinated, immunocompromised or living in low-resourced communities continue to be at higher risk and are more likely to become seriously ill and die from COVID-19,” Ferrer said in a statement Wednesday. “Along with the significant protection provided by vaccines and boosters, masks add an important barrier to transmission that protects those most vulnerable from the worst outcomes.

“Therefore, Public Health, in alignment with the state, strongly recommends that individuals keep their masks on in public indoor settings, regardless of vaccination status, until there is less risk for those at elevated risk.”

Masking will continue to be required in higher-risk settings, including health care facilities, transit centers, airports, aboard public transit, in correctional facilities and at homeless shelters and long-term care facilities.

Indoor masks also continue to be required on K-12 school campuses, although the county and state will lift that requirement on March 12. The policy, however, is expected to remain in place in the Los Angeles Unified School District until the end of the school year.

County health officials also noted that people attending indoor mega-events of 1,000 or more people — such as sporting events — will still be required to show proof of COVID vaccination or a recent negative test to be admitted. Vaccine verification or a negative test will also still be required at health care facilities and congregate-care facilities.

The county has dropped its requirement that people show proof of vaccination to patronize indoor portions of bars, nightclubs and lounges.

While the mask mandate will likely be lifted, Ferrer warned Tuesday that the virus remains a threat. She said the county will be monitoring seven “alert signals” that could portend increased virus activity. Three of them are community-wide metrics — variants of concern, COVID-19 emergency department visits and cumulative COVID case rates in high-poverty communities.

The other four “alert signals” involve specific sectors, tracking outbreaks at skilled nursing facilities, at K-12 schools, at homeless shelters and at worksites. If two or more of those signals rise to alert levels, the county will work to determine what is causing the increase and whether restrictions need to be reinstated.

The county reported 80 new COVID-19 deaths Wednesday, raising the overall death toll from the virus to 30,858. One of the deaths reported Wednesday was a person between ages 12 and 17.

The county also reported a total of 1,626 new COVID cases, raising the cumulative pandemic total to 2,799,169.

The rolling average daily rate of people testing for the virus was 1.2% as of Wednesday, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

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