LA County COVID transmission 'concerning' despite lack of severe cases

Los Angeles County Health Services is reiterating the seriousness of COVID-19 transmission in the county, after video circulating online showed LA County + USC Medical Center doctors criticizing the media's depiction of the local COVID situation.

"On behalf of LAC+USC Medical Center, we would like to be very clear: the COVID-19 pandemic remains a very serious public health threat that we must continue to fight with every tool available, including vaccines, masking, social distancing, and treatment," the department said in a press release Monday. 

In a live-streamed town hall meeting last week, LAC+USC Medical Center Chief Medical Officer Brad Spellberg and Dr. Paul Holtom criticized "media hype" surrounding rising COVID case numbers in LA County.

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"It is just not the same pandemic as it was, despite all the media hype to the contrary," Spellberg said, adding, "A lot of people have bad colds is what we're seeing."

Both Spellberg and Holtom were discussing that while the number of positive COVID tests is going up, the hospital is not seeing cases nearly as serious as earlier in the pandemic. 

While County Health Services acknowledged the lack of serious cases at LAC+USC Monday, the department pointed out that the increased transmission rates, "are extremely concerning, as the more people who become infected, the greater the probability that ICU admissions for COVID-19 will rise in the future."

At LAC+USC Monday, the hospital reported 30 COVID-positive patients, only three of whom were admitted for COVID, none of whom are in the ICU. Countywide, the number of COVID cases in hospitals went up slightly last week to just over 1,200, while the number of COVID-positive patients in the ICU dropped slightly.  

LA County entered the "high COVID transmission" category last week, prompting discussion about a potential reinstatement of a mandatory indoor mask mandate. High transmission, as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is reached when the seven-day average of new COVID-related hospital admissions hit 10 per 100,000 residents. A universal indoor mask mandate as early as July 29 if the county remains in this category for two straight weeks, the county's Department of Public Health announced Thursday.

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LA County Health Services said Monday that severe cases are down mainly due to vaccination efforts against the virus, and that the decreased case severity seen at LAC+USC "should not negate the importance of vaccination and other COVID-19 safety measures, nor should they be used to promote baseless political arguments against such measures."

LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Thursday the recent spike in infections has been fueled by the BA.4 and BA.5 variants of the virus. Most recent statistics show that of the county COVID cases undergoing specialized testing to identify variants, 48.2% were BA.5 and 14% were BA.4. That combined 62% rate is double the proportion from two weeks ago.

In a statement Monday, LA County Public Health also emphasized the continuing seriousness of the county's COVID situation.

"There is a lot of misinformation circulating about COVID, including that at this point, it only causes mild illness," the department said. "Unfortunately, this isn’t true and COVID is still one of the leading causes of death in LA County. COVID has caused thousands of deaths every year, and the number of deaths from COVID this year from the Omicron variant and its subvariants is still high – it is already over 4,400 and will clearly increase significantly before the end of the year."

Prior to the pandemic, LA County saw on average 1,900 annual deaths from the flu and pneumonia, approximately 2,000 from drug overdoses and just under 900 from motor vehicle accidents, according to the department.

City News Service contributed to this report.