COVID-19 numbers continued trending downward in Los Angeles County Thursday, but health officials again preached adherence to infection-control measures such as mask wearing and social distancing to avoid another surge in cases.
“LA County has made encouraging progress in all the key indicators this month,” Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement. “Let us not step backward on our recovery journey. We know from experience that gatherings, parties and the other activities we usually do with non-household members on holidays leads to increases in transmission, hospitalizations and deaths.”
“Continuing to slow transmission requires limiting the number of people we interact with,” she said. “If we do not gather, we save lives.”
The warning came ahead of the three-day Presidents' Day holiday weekend, which also includes Valentine's Day, as well as Friday's Lunar New Year.
As they have in the past, health officials fear that positive news about downward trends in COVID cases and hospitalizations will lead to complacency among the public.
The county on Thursday reported another 160 COVID deaths, while Long Beach health officials announced 15 fatalities and Pasadena another five, lifting the overall death toll to 18,678.
Another 3,489 new cases were also confirmed by the county, along with 150 by Long Beach and 25 by Pasadena, raising the cumulative total from throughout the pandemic to 1,158,794.
According to state figures, there were 3,604 people hospitalized in the county due to COVID as of Thursday, with 1,067 people in intensive care.
County officials noted that one week ago, there were just under 5,000 people hospitalized due to the virus. The number topped 8,000 in early January.
COVID-19 vaccination efforts are continuing in the county, although at a slow pace due to limited supplies. County-operated large-scale vaccination sites will be offering only second doses of the two-dose regimen for the rest of this week. The county-run sites are at the Pomona Fairplex, the Forum in Inglewood, Cal State Northridge, County Office of Education in Downey, Magic Mountain in Valencia, Balboa Sports Complex in Encino and the El Sereno Recreation Center.
Five city-operated vaccine sites, most notably Dodger Stadium, will be closed for the next two days due to the lack of vaccine supplies.
Despite continued concerns about the lack of vaccine supply, the county plans to expand the eligibility for the shots to various essential workers in two to three weeks, including teachers.
The shots will be offered to workers in three categories: education/child care; food and agriculture; and emergency services and law enforcement. In Los Angeles County, those categories represent roughly 1.3 million people, meaning that even after they become eligible for the shots, it will take weeks to get all of them fully vaccinated, which requires two doses spaced out by three to four weeks.
The expansion of the vaccine eligibility will occur even as the county continues administering shots to the currently eligible populations -- health care workers, residents and staff of nursing and long-term care facilities and residents 65 and over. Ferrer noted Wednesday that, to date, only 20% of residents age 65 and over have received at least one dose of the medication.
The county on average has been receiving only about 200,000 doses of the medication a week. With vaccine supply remaining that low and the field of eligible residents expanding, getting an appointment for a shot could become dramatically more difficult.
“At this point, we'd like to make significant inroads into getting people who are older vaccinated,” she said. “...Our hope is that over these next two weeks you're going to see that number go way up in terms of the number of older people who are getting vaccinated. But also it's an acknowledgement that we do have to get started with some of our essential workers. It's going to be really difficult to wait weeks and weeks and weeks until we complete an entire sector before we move on.”
Representatives from an array of sectors has been pressuring state and local officials to make the vaccines available, creating what Ferrer conceded was a difficult process of deciding who will come first. The issue of getting teachers vaccinated has become a major issue in recent days amid pushes by Gov. Gavin Newsom and some local officials to get students back in classrooms. But Los Angeles Unified teachers and the superintendent have said teachers and staff need to be vaccinated before that can happen, despite the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying otherwise.
Ferrer pointed out Wednesday that 1,700 schools opened last fall in the county with limited numbers of students, and another 300 are operating under a waiver program that allowed younger students to return to campuses, and “we saw very few outbreaks” of the virus, and those that did occur were small and easily contained.
Ferrer said the county is also taking steps to address disparities in the distribution of vaccines overall, with statistics released this week showing that of the more than 1 million doses administered so far, only 3.5% went to Black residents.
She said the county has opened 10 additional vaccination sites this week in East and South Los Angeles, and mobile vaccination teams are fanning out to housing developments and senior centers in hard-hit communities.
Community health workers are also being dispatched to interact with residents, in some cases going door-to-door, to provide information about the vaccine and dispel any myths that may be preventing people from getting vaccinated.