LA County could return to indoor mask-wearing if COVID numbers keep rising

Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer says that at the current pace of increases in local COVID-19-related hospitalizations, the county could move into the federal government's "high" virus activity category within a few weeks, possibly by the end of June. 

Such a move would mean a return of mandatory indoor mask-wearing in the county, she warned. 

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.

The number of COVID-19-positive patients in Los Angeles County hospitals rose above 500, according to the latest data, continuing an upward trend on the heels of a weeks-long spike in infections.

According to state figures, there were 502 COVID-positive patients hospitalized in the county as of Wednesday, up from 479 a day earlier. It's the highest hospitalization number since mid-March.

Health officials have noted that most people with COVID in county hospitals were actually admitted for a reason other than the virus, with many not realizing they were infected until they were tested upon admission. But county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said last week that even if patients were admitted for another reason, their COVID infections mean hospitals must take more intensive protective measures while they are being treated.

Although COVID infection numbers across the county have been rising for weeks, the impact on hospitals has been relatively minimal when compared to the winter surge of cases that led to nearly 4,800 people being hospitalized. Health officials have attributed the reduced impact on hospitals to high vaccination coverage and the availability of therapeutic drugs that can control infections if administered quickly after exposure.

The county reported another 4,454 COVID infections on Wednesday, raising the cumulative case total from throughout the pandemic to 2,980,708. Another five virus-related deaths were also reported, giving the county an overall total of 32,136.

With school year coming to a close and cases still increasing, health officials on Wednesday urged families to test frequently to combat virus spread and ensure students can safely attend end-of-year gatherings.

"Testing before gathering indoors with others is one such strategy," Ferrer said in a statement Wednesday. "Over-the-counter tests are being distributed through many county schools, and we encourage families to take advantage of these free tests, especially if there are unvaccinated or high- risk family members. Let's celebrate the accomplishments of our students without jeopardizing the health of those most vulnerable."

The average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus in the county was 4.7% as of Wednesday, up from 4% a day earlier.