LOS ANGELES - The growing local spread of COVID-19 was evidenced when Los Angeles County reported 4,384 new infections in its latest data, and perhaps more troubling, the number of people hospitalized surged upward.
According to county and state figures, there were 363 COVID-positive patients in county hospitals as of Wednesday, up from 327 a day earlier. The number of those patients being treated in intensive care was 55, up from 44 on Tuesday.
COVID hospital numbers had been steadily dropping in recent months, falling to as far as 219 on April 20, but the number has been inching upward ever since.
Health officials are keeping a close watch on the hospitalization figures, because a sharp rise on top of widespread community transmission of the virus could lead to a renewal of mandatory indoor mask-wearing rules.
The 4,384 new cases reported Wednesday lifted the county's overall total from throughout the pandemic to 2,922,210. The average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus, while still relatively low, rose to 3.2% Wednesday, up from 2.6% on Tuesday.
Another 10 COVID deaths were also reported, raising the cumulative virus-related death toll in the county to 32,055. Health officials have noted that most people who die from COVID suffer from various underlying health conditions.
Similarly, most hospital patients who are infected with COVID were hospitalized for reasons other than the virus, health officials said. Many only learned they were infected when they were tested upon hospital admission.
Based on rising COVID case numbers, Los Angeles County on Thursday could be downgraded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from the current "low" community risk category to "medium."
Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that the cumulative seven-day average rate of new cases in the county is about 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."
The CDC updates its classifications 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 spike in COVID-related hospitalizations, it could push the area into the "high" risk category, meaning a return of indoor mask-wearing mandates.
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%.
She told the board the county is likely to move into the CDC's "medium" COVID risk category this week, but she remains confident the county will avoid sliding into the "high" 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.
On Wednesday, the county Department of Public Health noted continued increases in cases among school staff and students, with the number quadrupling in the past month. Health officials urged schools and students to take precautions, strongly recommending indoor mask-wearing, although it remains optional.