LOS ANGELES - Thanks to falling infection numbers, Los Angeles County Thursday moved out of the federal government's "high" COVID-19 activity category and into the "medium" level, but the county's health director warned that transmission remains elevated and urged people to exercise caution over the holidays.
As of Thursday, the county's average rate of new COVID cases was 180 per 100,000 residents, down from 204 per 100,000 a week ago. That dropped the county below the threshold of 200 per 100,000 residents for the "high" community activity level set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the county over the past week averaged about 2,600 new COVID infections per day, a roughly 12% decline from 3,000 per day the previous week. Despite the decline, she stressed that "transmission does remain elevated" in the county, noting again that the official case numbers are an undercount due to the widespread use of at-home tests -- the results of which are not reported to the county -- and due to people who don't get tested at all.
Moving from the "high" to the "medium" category will not have any impact on public health restrictions, although it decreases the likelihood of the county re-imposing an indoor mask-wearing mandate, which Ferrer previously said could be done if case rates and hospitalization numbers continued to increase.
Ferrer warned Thursday, however, that given continued high transmission, "if the case rate increases even a little bit, we would again be moved into `high."'
"It is possible L.A. County will continue to move back and forth between `medium' and `high' for the next few weeks," she said.
She urged residents to "layer in protections over the next few weeks," such as wearing masks in crowded indoor settings, staying home when sick and getting tested before attending large gatherings.
Mask wearing continues to be "strongly recommended" by the county at indoor public settings. But Ferrer said that even absent a mandate, residents should start wearing them, given the elevated rate of transmission.
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.
Ferrer said the county is averaging 178 new COVID-related hospital admissions per day, about a 10% drop from a week ago, but she said the number is still at its highest level since April, even higher than during the summer surge in infections.
The number of available staffed hospital beds in the county, meanwhile, continues to remain at its lowest level in four years, averaging 210 during the month of December. She said bed availability is impacted by both the number of patients and the level of hospital staffing.
"With higher rates of respiratory illness, many staff are getting sick themselves," she said.
The average number of daily virus-related deaths reported by the county also remains elevated, rising to 21 per day over the past week, up from 16 per day a week ago and more than double the rate from the beginning of the month.
She noted the vast majority of deaths are occurring in people aged 70 and older, reflecting the population that is also being hospitalized due to the virus at the highest levels.
According to state figures, there were 1,256 COVID-positive patients in county hospitals as of Thursday, down from 1,274 on Wednesday. Of those patients, 150 were being treated in intensive care units, down slightly from 152 the previous day.
Health officials have estimated that roughly 40% of patients with the virus were admitted for actual COVID-related ailments, while others were hospitalized for other reasons, with many only learning they were infected upon admission.
The county reported 3,080 new infections on Wednesday, giving the county a cumulative total from throughout the pandemic of 3,609,228.
Another 23 deaths were reported Wednesday, raising the county's overall virus-related death toll to 34,515.
The seven-day average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was 11.4% as of Wednesday, up from 10.4% a week ago.