LOS ANGELES - As COVID-19 numbers continue to improve in Los Angeles County, and with more restrictions likely to be lifted in coming weeks, the county's public health director has warned that while an end to the pandemic is in sight, it's not over yet.
"Our biggest worry is, of course, that people will relax too much, decide not to wear their face mask, decide not to keep their distance, decide to go back to having big parties,'' Barbara Ferrer said Wednesday during a virtual briefing. "We're just not there yet. None of that would be safe at this point, and all of it can cause spread.''
Her warning came amid continuing downward trends in COVID-19 cases and
hospitalizations, but with daily deaths regularly topping 100 and more variants of the virus appearing that could more quickly spread through a community still struggling to get fully vaccinated.
Ferrer said the county has now confirmed the first case of a COVID variant first discovered in Brazil, and the number of cases of a variant that originated in the United Kingdom has shot up to 27, a 50% jump from the 18 cases known as of last week. And a California variant is becoming increasingly dominant, with county officials detecting the mutation in 31 of 55 specimens that were specifically tested for it.
"We still have a lot of community transmission,'' Ferrer said. "We still have variants that are dominating that are thought to be more infectious, that's the California variant, and an increased probability that we have more of the UK variant circulating as well. So our work is not done.''
She said news that vaccine supplies are expected to vastly increase in the coming months -- beginning next week with the anticipated arrival of the first doses of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine -- means an end is in sight. But people can't abandon all infection-control measures before reaching the finish line.
Meanwhile, in a major policy shift, state officials on Wednesday night said they will now devote 40% of available vaccines to people in disadvantaged areas, according to a published report.
The Los Angeles Times said that, after 400,000 doses are administered to people in the state's hardest-hit areas, the state also plans to significantly relax rules for counties to exit the most restrictive tier of the state's four-level reopening blueprint. The change comes amid continuing evidence that Black and Latino communities are lagging in gaining access to vaccinations.
Los Angeles County is on track to exit the restrictive purple tier of the state's four-level economic-reopening road map by late March. If it advances to the less-restrictive red tier, more businesses could be cleared to open, including indoor dining, movie theaters and fitness centers, all at limited capacity.
Figures released by the state Tuesday put the county's adjusted average daily rate of new COVID-19 infections at 7.2 per 100,000 residents. If that number falls to 7 per 100,000 residents and stays at that level for two weeks, the county will be able to move out of the restrictive purple tier of the state's "Blueprint for a Safer Economy,'' and into the red tier. The county already meets the other two required metrics -- with an average testing-positivity rate of just 3.5% and a "health equity quartile'' of 5.1% -- to advance to the red tier.
Ferrer noted that in addition to allowing more businesses to open, moving to the red tier would also allow in-person instruction to resume for students in grades 7-12. The county already meets the requirements for in-person classes for pre-kindergarten through sixth grade.