LA County could fall out of 'low' virus risk category as COVID cases rise

With the spread of COVID-19 continuing to increase, Los Angeles County this week could be downgraded from the federal government's "low" community risk rating to "medium" -- meaning if virus- related hospitalizations dramatically spike upward, indoor mask-wearing would again be mandated.

The county, like most of the country, has been rated in the "low" risk category for weeks following the end of the winter surge in cases -- a reflection of steadily declining cases and hospitalizations of virus-positive patients.

But with the recent rise of highly transmissible variants, most notably BA.2 and the more recent offshoot BA.2.12.1, infection numbers have slowly risen.

Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that the cumulative seven-day average rate of new cases is now 185 per 100,000 residents -- above the rate of 176 from last Thursday. If that rate reaches 200 per 100,000 residents, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will shift the county from the "low" community COVID level to "medium."

Ferrer said that could happen later this week. The CDC updates its ratings every Thursday.

For residents, the shift would not have any immediate impact, since the county has already implemented the CDC's recommendations for areas in the "medium" category -- such as mask-wearing on public transit, wide availability of vaccinations and guidance for improving ventilation in indoor settings.

But if the county experiences a sudden spike in COVID-related hospitalizations, it could push the area into the "high" risk category, meaning a return of indoor mask-wearing mandates.

While the county has seen some slight increases in the past week of virus-positive hospital patients, the number is still well below the level that would prompt a move to the "high" category. Under CDC guidelines, counties in the "medium" category will move to "high" if the rate of new virus-related hospital admissions reaches 10 per 100,000 residents, or if 10% of the county's staffed hospital beds are occupied by COVID-positive patients.

Ferrer said the county's current rate of new admissions is 3.1 per 100,000 residents, and the rate of hospital beds occupied by COVID-positive patients is just under 2%. While both of those numbers are well within CDC guidelines for the "medium" category, she noted that the current rate of new admissions is 1.5 times higher than it was a month ago.

She told the board, however, that she remains confident the county will avoid sliding into the "high" COVID activity category.

"While we are disheartened that the pandemic hasn't ended, I am reassured that with the tools at hand, we can continue to enjoy our time with each other and our participation in those activities that we love," she said.

The county reported another 2,233 COVID infections on Tuesday, raising the cumulative total from throughout the pandemic to 2,917,892. Another eight deaths were also confirmed, lifting the overall virus-related death toll in the county to 32,045.

According to state figures, there were 327 virus-positive patients in county hospitals as of Tuesday, up from 312 on Monday. The number of those patients being treated in intensive care held steady at 44.

Health officials have noted in recent months that most COVID-positive patients in hospitals were actually admitted for something other than the virus, and many only discovered they were infected when they were tested upon admission.

The average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus also held steady, at 2.6%.