As businesses reopen despite elevated COVID-19 numbers, Los Angeles County officials stressed again Wednesday the need for residents and merchants to follow health restrictions, noting that restaurants will face stepped-up infection-control requirements when they're permitted to reopen Friday.
Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer declined to give specifics about additional requirements restaurants will be facing when patio dining returns. She is scheduled to hold briefings with restaurant industry officials and employee unions Wednesday afternoon, and said a revised health order outlining the restrictions could be released by Thursday night, allowing patio dining to resume Friday.
The county previously limited restaurants to 50% of their outdoor capacity, while requiring servers to wear masks and face shields, and mandating that tables be adequately spaced to ensure social distancing. The city of Long Beach health department has already cleared outdoor dining to resume with similar restrictions, along with a recommendation that only members of the same household dine out together.
"Every person and every business must continue to take every precaution every day to prevent transmission,'' Ferrer said. "None of us want to see this line (of new cases) start to go back up, and the only way to prevent that from happening is to keep doing what we know keeps this virus in check. It's really up to us whether we can sustain these reopenings without jeopardizing each other's health and our ability to get more schools to reopen."
Ferrer said notices were being sent this week to all reopening businesses to remind them of the restrictions for various sectors, most involving capacity limits, face coverings and sanitation procedures. She also issued a warning to residents to limit gatherings, specifically citing the upcoming Super Bowl, reminding that past sporting events and celebrations during the Dodgers and Lakers championship runs contributed to spiking infections.
"We know that Super Bowl Sunday is coming up, and we can't repeat the mistakes of the past," she said. "It will be tragic if the Super Bowl becomes a super-spreader of coronavirus."
Ferrer said that despite this week's lifting of the state's regional stay-at-home order and the re-imposing of the local health order that permits outdoor gatherings of up to 15 people from three different households, residents shouldn't take it as a pass to begin widespread socializing.
"It just doesn't work if every night people gather with a different group of folks to have small parties,'' she said. "This is one of the reasons we had the surge. Too many people socializing."
Ferrer noted a continuing downward trend in new COVID-19 case rates, reporting 6,917 new infections Wednesday. The new cases lifted the cumulative countywide total from throughout the pandemic to 1,091,712.
The number of people dying from the virus, however, remains high, with the county announcing another 307 deaths, although 22 of those fatalities were actually reported Tuesday by Long Beach health officials. The news deaths increased the overall death toll to 15,897.
Ferrer and county Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly said the daily number of deaths is likely to remain elevated for at least two more weeks, due to the recent surge of COVID patients swarming intensive-care units.
The hospitalization numbers have been trending downward, with the state reporting a total of 6,026 people hospitalized in the county due to COVID as of Wednesday, including 1,542 people in ICUs. At the beginning of the month, the county was averaging more than 8,000 COVID patients. The county's average ICU population of COVID patients has also fallen, from about 1,900 per day earlier this month to now about 1,600.
Ghaly noted that hospitals are now averaging about 500 new daily COVID patient admissions per day, down from more than 700 earlier this month, the number is still double the rate seen during the COVID surge last July.
The county's COVID-19 transmission rate -- reflecting the average number of people a COVID patient infects with the virus -- also continues to decline, estimated Wednesday at 0.85, down from 0.94 last week. Keeping that number below 1.0 is considered critical to slowing the spread of the virus.
But while the numbers continue to trend in the right direction, Ghaly noted that cases could quickly surge again if residents become lax about infection control.
"Though things are finally starting to move in the right direction, an increase in the behaviors that facilitate transmission could lead to a renewed increase in the number of hospitalized patients within about three weeks time,'' Ghaly said. "There's always that lag between activity that might expose somebody to the virus, through to infection through to the point at which someone requires a hospital for care.
"I thus urge everyone to continue to be safe," she said. "...If we collectively let up on our efforts to limit transmission, then our hospital system could easily become overwhelmed again. We cannot let this happen. We can't let the current high number of COVID patients still within the hospital become normal to us. It is simply not sustainable."
Ferrer said allocations of COVID-19 vaccine continue to lag behind demand, with the county expecting to receive roughly 188,000 doses next week. Many of those, however, will be needed to administer second shots to people who have already received the first dose of the two-dose regimen.
As of the end of last week, the county had received a total of 853,650 doses. It received an estimated 143,900 doses this week, pushing the total to nearly 1 million.
Vaccination appointments can be booked online at vaccinatelacounty.com or by calling 833-530-0473 between 8 a.m. and 8:30 p.m.
On another positive note, Ferrer said if case rates continue to decline, the county could be able to reopen elementary schools for limited in-person instruction in a matter of weeks. She said for schools to reopen for students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, the county needs to have an average new daily case rate of 25 per 100,000 residents. The county's current rate is 48 per 100,000.