LOS ANGELES - On the day it lifted its outdoor mask-wearing mandate thanks to dwindling COVID-19 hospitalization numbers, Los Angeles County reported another 102 virus-related deaths in its latest data, pushing it over the grim milestone of 30,000 fatalities during the pandemic.
The sobering milestone served as a reminder that the virus was continuing to claim lives, even as restrictions begin to ease locally and statewide in response to falling transmission rates and daily case numbers that signaled an end to the winter surge of infections.
"While entering post-surge is welcoming news, we are all aware that post-surge does not mean the pandemic is over, or that transmission is low, or that there will not be additional unpredictable waves of surges in the future that will require integrated public health measures," county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement.
The 102 deaths reported Wednesday gave the county a pandemic death toll of 30,081.
Another 3,348 COVID infections were also reported, raising the county's cumulative pandemic todal to 2,769,372.
The rolling average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was 3% as of Wednesday.
According to state figures, there were 1,835 COVID-positive patients in county hospitals as of Wednesday, down from 1,995 a day earlier. The number of those patients being treated in intensive care was 388, down from 423 on Tuesday.
Wednesday marked the seventh consecutive day the county's number of COVID-positive hospitalizations was below 2,500, a benchmark set earlier this month by Ferrer for lifting the local mask-wearing mandate at outdoor mega- events and outdoors at K-12 schools and child care centers.
The mandate was officially lifted at 12:01 a.m.
Although the county's lifting of the outdoor mask-wearing requirement applies to schools, the Los Angeles Unified School District is keeping the rule in place for the rest of the week.
New Superintendent Alberto Carvalho announced Tuesday night that while the district has followed the county's protocols closely, it "will keep the current guidelines in place for the remainder of the week and will announce changes to our outdoor masking guidance as early as next week."
Carvalho, speaking on KNX radio Wednesday morning, said the delay is primarily to coordinate protocols with school administrators, labor groups and parents. He expressed confidence that outdoor mask wearing would likely end by next week.
The decision to delay, however, prompted outrage from some critics who lashed out on social media and blasted Carvalho, who just started as superintendent this week.
"It's your first day and you've already failed to do what's right," one person wrote online. Another wrote, "End all mandates in schools! Our children need to breathe fresh air."
It was unclear if the district's labor contract with the powerful United Teachers Los Angeles union played into the delay in lifting the mandate. The district's COVID protocol agreement with the union states specifically that masks -- provided by the district -- will be required for all adults and students.
UTLA officials could not be reached for immediate comment.
The county's elimination of the outdoor masking mandate coincided with the state's Wednesday lifting of its indoor mask-wearing requirement for fully vaccinated residents. Los Angeles County, however, will maintain its indoor mask mandate for all people, regardless of vaccination status.
Ferrer said again Tuesday that the county's indoor masking rule will remain in place until the county's virus-transmission rate falls to the "moderate" level, as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and stays there for two weeks. Ferrer said the county's rate is declining, and at the current pace, it should reach the "moderate" level by March 16, meaning the indoor mask requirement could be lifted by March 30.
She said she understands residents' desire to shed face coverings, but the "issue is one of timing." Ferrer said masks are a critical level of protection when virus transmission remains high.
Ferrer urged anyone who attended the Super Bowl -- where the vast majority of fans ignored the mask-wearing rule -- or watched the game in a crowded location with unmasked people to consider getting tested for COVID.
"To the many residents who watched the Super Bowl this past weekend at SoFi stadium, with friends and family at your home, or at a local bar or restaurant, please get tested if you were in crowded places where many were unmasked," she said in a statement Tuesday. "This is particularly important for anyone experiencing illness symptoms. We would like to avoid the increases in cases that have sometimes occurred following large sporting events. For those celebrating at the Rams Super Bowl victory parade (Wednesday), being cautious still makes sense so please continue to wear masks if in close contact with many others."
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