While expressing continued optimism about local efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, Los Angeles County health officials noted again Wednesday recent upticks in case numbers that could reflect a post-Labor Day spike in infections and will likely delay more expansive business reopenings.
County public health director Barbara Ferrer also issued another warning to people who persist in thinking the coronavirus does not pose a serious threat, saying the county has seen an 18% rise in overall deaths this year when compared to this stage of the past three years.
"In other words, when we compare the first seven months of 2020 to the first seven months of the past three years, we've observed on average 18% more deaths than we expected, based on past trends," Ferrer said. "And we know that the excess deaths are not fully attributable to just people who died of COVID-19. But I do want to emphasize -- especially for those who continue to believe that COVID-19 is no worse than a bad case of influenza -- that this chart shows that, in fact, it's much worse.
"We've probably had 20 to 30% more deaths in May, June and July of 2020 than we saw in the prior three years for the same months," she said. "... If you look at the entire L.A. County population, this has translated into thousands of deaths that would otherwise not have occurred."
Ferrer continued to paint a picture of L.A. County generally winning the fight to slow the spread of the virus, although she again said this is a "critical week" in determining if the county is experiencing a post-Labor Day surge in cases. Daily new case numbers in the county have been on a steady decline for at least six weeks, but at the end of last week -- roughly two weeks after the Labor Day holiday -- the county saw a series of increases, with new cases topping 1,000 on four consecutive days.
On Wednesday, Ferrer announced 1,265 new cases -- although some of those positive tests could potentially have occurred over the past few days, when test results tend to lag from the weekend.
The county, however, also reported a disturbing increase in the local
virus transmission rate -- the average number of people a coronavirus patient
infects with the illness. That number had been steadily declining, dropping
below the critical threshold of 1.0, but on Wednesday, it rose to 1.02.
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Health officials have said that keeping the transmission rate below 1 is critical to slowing the spread of the virus, so the county will be keeping a close watch on that number in the coming days to see if it continues inching upward.
Concerns about post-Labor Day case numbers also have the county reticent to move ahead with any new business reopenings -- most notably for nail salons, which were cleared by the state Tuesday to resume indoor operations. The county, however, is yet to authorize them to reopen locally, and county Supervisor Hilda Solis expressed hesitance to do so until more data are collected this week to determine case trends.
"We regularly speak with our public health director, whether its via email or phone conversations,'' she said. "We will be having our meeting this coming Tuesday and we'll be able to discuss some of these items, and they're very, very -- what could I say -- concerning, because we know that we're waiting to see data coming back after the Labor Day weekend, so I am very, very cautious of that."
Ferrer confirmed Wednesday that the county currently meets the criteria to move up a tier in the state's four-tier roadmap for business reopenings, thanks to a current average testing-positivity rate of just 2.8% and a new daily case rate of seven per 100,000 residents.
But those statistics, which are used by the state to classify counties in the appropriate tier, are based on data collected the week of Sept. 6-12 -- before the county saw the four-day spike in daily case numbers last week.
"So we're not sure that we'll have another week where our adjusted daily case rate is at or below seven new cases per 100,000 residents," she said. "But we are heartened that L.A. County has met the thresholds that allow us to see our progress and in the future move to tier two."
The county is in the most restrictive "purple" tier of the state's matrix. Moving up to tier two, or the "red" tier, would allow more businesses to reopen, including movie theaters, with capacity limits and other restrictions.
The 1,265 new cases announced Wednesday, along with 69 announced by Long Beach health officials and six more announced by Pasadena, lifted the countywide cumulative total since the start of the pandemic to 263,408.
Ferrer also announced 31 more coronavirus-related deaths, while Long Beach added two more, lifting the total to 6,425.
A total of 779 people were hospitalized due to the virus as of Wednesday -- down sharply from the average of 2,200 patients that were reported back in July following the Fourth of July holiday.