COVID cases surging in LA County as possible return of indoor mask mandate looms

Los Angeles County reported more than 10,000 new COVID-19 infections from a three-day period ending Monday, continuing an upward trend in cases that has also pushed up virus-related hospitalizations.

The county Department of Public Health logged 5,106 new cases on Saturday, 3,270 on Sunday and 1,713 on Monday. Sunday and Monday figures tend to be lower due to delays in weekend reporting. Overall numbers are also believed to be an undercount of actual virus activity in the county, since many people rely on at-home tests without reporting the results to health officials, while many others don't get tested at all.

The 10,089 new cases from the three-day period lifted the cumulative total from throughout the pandemic to 3,562,059. The county also reported 29 more COVID-related deaths from the three-day period, giving the county an overall death toll of 34,241.

Updated hospitalization numbers were not immediately available. As of Saturday, there were 1,205 COVID-positive patients in county hospitals, with 123 of them being treated in intensive care.

Health officials have said previously that roughly 40% of the patients were actually admitted for COVID-related issues, while the rest were admitted for other reasons but tested positive at the hospital.

The seven-day average rate of people testing positive for the virus in the county was 12.5% as of Monday.

The recent surge in infections and rising hospitalizations have led to the possibility of the county re-instituting an indoor mask-wearing mandate.

On Friday, county health officials said the average daily number of new infections over the previous seven days was 3,053, up from 2,121 a week ago. The average daily number of COVID-positive patients in county hospitals was 1,056 as of Friday, up 39% from a week earlier.

The current surge is being blamed largely on a pair of new variants of the virus, known as BQ.1 and BQ.1.1. Both are offshoots of the BA.5 variant that was blamed for rises in infection numbers earlier this year.

County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Thursday that the rising case and hospitalization numbers have moved Los Angeles County from the "low" COVID community activity level to the "medium" category, as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She said the county is on pace to reach the "high" level in a matter of days. That will occur when the rate of new cases reaches 200 per 100,000 residents. The rate was 185 per 100,000 residents as of last Thursday.

The move to "medium" did not prompt any immediate changes to public health mandates, such as indoor masking -- which remains "strongly recommended" by the county.

But masking could again become mandatory indoors in a matter of weeks, Ferrer said.

The masking mandate would return if the county, as expected, enters the "high" community level, and if the county's virus-related hospitalization numbers reach two thresholds:

-- if the rate of daily hospital admissions tops 10 per 100,000 residents; and

-- if the percent of staffed hospital beds occupied by COVID patients tops 10%.

The county has already surpassed the first threshold, with the rate of daily hospital admissions already at 11.9 per 100,000 residents as of Thursday. But the level of hospital beds occupied by COVID patients was still 5.9% as of Thursday, below the 10% threshold.

Masks are still required indoors at health-care and congregate-care facilities, for anyone exposed to the virus in the past 10 days, and at businesses where they are required by the owner.