The number of COVID-19-positive patients in Los Angeles County hospitals fell below the 700 mark Thursday, continuing a mostly steady downward trend and echoing drops in infection numbers.

According to state figures, there were 677 COVID-positive patients hospitalized in the county, down from 717 on Wednesday. Of those patients, 84 were being treated in intensive care, down from 89 a day earlier.

The hospital numbers have been declining over the past month, corresponding with falling transmission rates. County officials have said about 43% of patients with COVID were actually hospitalized due to virus-related illness, while the rest were admitted for other reasons, with some only learning they were infected when they were tested upon admission.

The county on Thursday reported 1,862 new COVID infections, raising the overall total from throughout the pandemic to 3,435,551. Another 19 virus-related deaths were announced, giving the county an cumulative total of 33,432.

The official number of new cases reported each day is believed to be an undercount of actual infections in the county, due to wide usage of at-home tests, the results of which are not generally reported to the county.

The seven-day average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus in the county was 5.6% as of Thursday.

County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday that the county’s rate of new infections has been dropping at a rate that could soon lead to a loosening of the county’s indoor masking recommendations.

Ferrer said the county averaged roughly 1,700 new COVID infections per day over the past week, a roughly 21% drop from 2,100 per day the previous week. The county’s weekly rate of new COVID infections was 127 per 100,000 residents as of Tuesday.

According to Ferrer, when that rate falls below 100 per 100,000 residents, which could happen within days, the county will change its recommendation for indoor mask-wearing. Masks are currently “strongly recommended” in most indoor settings, but when the county’s weekly case rate falls below 100 per 100,000 residents, masking will become a matter of “individual preference.”

She noted that masking will still be mandatory in places where it is specifically required, including health care facilities, in correctional facilities, homeless shelters, aboard public transit and in businesses that choose to mandate them. Mask-wearing will also continue to be required indoors for 10 days — including at schools — for people who have been exposed to the virus.

That requirement in schools has generated vocal opposition from some local school district superintendents, who have urged the county to remove the rule for students and staff who may have been exposed but are not showing any symptoms.

Despite that lobbying, the rule remains in place, although Ferrer said Tuesday the county has taken steps allowing parents to obtain exemptions through their health care providers.

She conceded that the countywide falling transmission rate is an indication that “the risk of getting infected or infecting others is reduced.” But she said people who are exposed to or infected with the virus still present a risk of transmitting the virus to others.

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