COVID mask
Woman Wearing Mask - Photo courtesy of Engin Akyurt on Unsplash

With the highly infectious BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants driving up case and hospitalization numbers, Los Angeles County moved into the “high” COVID-19 activity level Thursday, meaning an indoor mask-wearing mandate will be imposed on July 29 absent a major slowdown in virus-related hospital admissions.

As of Thursday, the average daily rate of COVID-19-positive patients being hospitalized in the county rose to 10.5 per 100,000 residents. That topped the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s threshold for “high” virus activity. The county was previously in the “medium” category.

County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer has warned over the past month that if the county remains in the “high” community level for two consecutive weeks, it will re-impose a mandatory indoor mask-wearing mandate. She reiterated that schedule Thursday, saying that unless hospitalization numbers fall, the masking rule will take effect July 29.

As of Thursday, there were 1,202 virus-positive patients in county hospitals, up from 1,170 on Wednesday. Of those patients, 122 were being treated in intensive care, down slightly from 123 a day earlier.

The county reported 8,535 new COVID infections on Thursday — a number that is likely much lower than the true number of cases, since many residents now rely on over-the-counter tests they take at home, often without reporting the results to the county.

Ferrer also announced 14 more virus-related deaths on Thursday. She noted that the county has been seeing a steady rise in COVID fatalities, averaging 14 per day over the past week.

Health officials have said that a majority of the deaths occurred in people with at least one underlying health condition, mainly hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.

The average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was 17.5% as of Thursday. But Ferrer noted that some health care facilities in the county are reporting positivity rates of 40% among patients seeking care.

The rate of 10.5 hospitalizations per 100,000 residents represents an 88% increase over the past month, Ferrer said. She said 5.4% of the county’s staffed hospital beds are occupied by COVID patients, an 84% increase from a month ago.

The spike in infections — leading to the ultimate rise in hospitalizations and deaths — has been fueled by the BA.4 and BA.5 variants of the virus. Most recent statistics show that of the COVID cases undergoing specialized testing to identify variants, 48.2% were BA.5 and 14% were BA.4. That combined 62% rate is double the proportion from two weeks ago.

Health officials said the variants are dramatically more contagious than previous strains thanks to their ability to infect people who were previously infected with other variants.

Masks are already still mandated in some indoor spaces — healthcare facilities, transit hubs, on transit vehicles, airports, correctional facilities and shelters. A universal mandate would spread the requirement to all indoor public spaces, including shared office spaces, manufacturing facilities, retail stores, indoor events, indoor restaurants and bars and schools.

If the mask mandate take effect July 29, it will remain in effect until the county falls back to the “medium” virus-activity category for two weeks, Ferrer said.

Speaking to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Ferrer pointed to recent studies showing dramatic reduction in infection risk for people who wear face coverings, particularly for people who wear higher-grade masks, such as N95 or KN95 masks.

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