COVID-19 hospitalizations fall below 1,000 in LA County

The number of COVID-positive patients in Los Angeles County hospitals has fallen below 1,000 for the first time since December, according to the latest state figures out Sunday.

There are 975 people with COVID-19 in county hospitals, down from 1,071 on Saturday. Of those patients, 188 are in intensive care, down from 220 the previous day.

The county's number of hospitalized COVID patients has been as high as 8,098 and as low as 213 during the two-year pandemic. It quickly shot up to over 4,800 in January amid a winter surge in cases fueled by the Omicron variant, and has been steadily declining since then. Officials also say that some patients enter the hospital for other reasons and discover they have COVID after a mandated test.

RELATED: LA County allows businesses to make indoor masking optional for vaccinated customers

The latest numbers come one day after local health officials reported 64 additional deaths associated with COVID-19 and 2,275 new positive tests, bringing the county's totals to 2,793,776 cases and 30,650 deaths since the pandemic began.

The rolling average daily rate of people testing for the virus was 1.4% as of Saturday, down from 1.6% on Friday, and 2% last Sunday, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

In the wake of improving metrics, officials have relaxed LA County's indoor mask mandate, allowing people who are vaccinated against COVID-19 to remove face coverings indoors at establishments that verify patrons' vaccination status.

The change took effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday. Hours later, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced amended COVID guidelines that dropped its recommendation for indoor mask-wearing in much of the country - - but not in LA County.

The CDC's new guidelines shifted the agency's emphasis away from COVID infection rates to focus instead on hospitalization numbers. The move came in recognition of the fact that with more people vaccinated, many people who get infected with the virus won't require hospitalization, reducing the likelihood that hospitals will become overrun with patients.

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But even with that shift, the CDC still categorized LA County's community COVID level as "high," meaning the agency continued to recommend indoor mask wearing. It was not clear when the county might fall to the "medium" category, which would drop the mask-wearing recommendation for most indoor locations. But it could potentially happen in a matter of days.

It was also not clear whether the county will follow the new CDC guidelines or stick to its previous metrics for determining when to lift the remainder of the indoor mask-wearing mandate. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told reporters Thursday that health officials would review the new CDC measures and would likely present some options to the Board of Supervisors this week.

In the meantime, the indoor mask-wearing mandate will remain in place for most locations in the county. But under the relaxed rules that took effect Friday, vaccinated people will be able to shed masks at indoor businesses that verify the vaccine status of all patrons. The rule puts the burden on individual businesses to verify that all customers permitted indoors are either fully vaccinated or can provide proof of a recent negative COVID test.

Even after that verification is conducted, only fully vaccinated customers are permitted to remove masks indoors, despite the fact that vaccinated people can still catch and transmit the virus. Unvaccinated customers must continue wearing masks indoors, even after showing proof of a negative COVID test, unless they are actively eating or drinking.

The same basic rules will apply to workers at indoor establishments.

The change followed rising pressure from two members of the county Board of Supervisors for a loosening of the mask mandate to more closely align with the state, which dropped its indoor mask mandate as of Feb. 16.

Los Angeles County, however, kept its mandate in place, setting parameters for ending the requirement that likely will not be met until the end of March.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger has been pushing for the county to align with the state, saying the contradictory requirements were leading to apathy and lax compliance among residents. Supervisor Janice Hahn joined Barger in that call earlier this month, pointing to Super Bowl LVI in Inglewood Feb. 13 as an example of people willfully ignoring the county's masking guidelines.

Hahn called the county's easing of the mandate on Friday a "step in the right direction."

"I still think that the better and less confusing approach would be to fully align with the state of California, but this is a welcome step in the right direction as our cases decline and we learn to live with this virus," she said in a statement.

Barger on Tuesday said she was "glad to hear" of the pending policy change, but said she still wants the county to do more, and completely align with the state's decision to lift the indoor masking requirement for vaccinated people.

Long Beach and Pasadena, which both have their own health departments separate from the county, eased their indoor masking requirements on Saturday -- generally in alignment with the state. In those cities, masks will still be required indoors for unvaccinated people. However, businesses can allow patrons to simply self-attest to their vaccination status, without any formal verification process.

Businesses will also have the option of verifying everyone's vaccination status, or to simply require all patrons to wear masks.

For now, the remainder of LA County's indoor mask mandate remains in effect at establishments that do not verify patrons' vaccination status. Under the current plan, Ferrer said the mandate will remain in effect until:

-- the county's level of COVID transmission rate falls to the "moderate" level as defined by the CDC and remains there for two weeks; OR

-- COVID vaccines have been available to residents under age 5 for at least eight weeks; AND

-- no emerging COVID "variants of concern" have been identified that could spark another surge in cases.

According to Ferrer, reaching the CDC's "moderate" level of transmission requires the county to have a seven-day cumulative infection rate of less than 50 per 100,000 residents. Ferrer said that is expected to happen by March 16, meaning the indoor mask mandate would be completely lifted by March 30.

Los Angeles County lifted its outdoor mask mandate for large event venues, schools and child-care centers on Feb. 16. Masks will continue to be required indoors at schools under a state requirement that is expected to be re-evaluated Monday.

LA Metro reminded riders Saturday that they are still required to wear face masks while on buses or trains, under a federal mandate that applies to all transit systems. Under federal rules, masks continue to be required indoors at airports, transit centers, aboard public transit, in health-care facilities and at homeless shelters, long-term care centers and emergency shelters.

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