The average number of daily new COVID-19 infections in Los Angeles County has jumped by about 200% over the past month, but while the increase hasn't translated to rises in local hospitalizations or deaths, the public health director warned Tuesday that rapid spread of the virus is leading to more rapid emergence of new and potentially more dangerous variants.
Speaking to the Board of Supervisors, county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the emergence of variants is becoming more frequent, with new COVID mutations being detected around the globe.
"Within weeks of one variant of concern dominating, there are reports from other parts of the country or other parts of the world of other subtypes or difference strains,'' she said. "And this has been especially true with Omicron. So yes, we have here in the United States begun to see the proliferation of the BA.2.12.1 variant (of Omicron). ... But in South Africa, they're seeing a huge increase in cases that also now is resulting in an increase in hospitalizations with a very different mutated virus that's been labeled BA.4 and BA.5.
"And again, for some of these variants, they have moved from other countries across the world,'' she said. "So when folks ask why Public Health remains cautious, it is because every time there is a new variant that is more infectious, or potentially more infectious, ... you have to be super careful about those who are most vulnerable in our communities. And in L.A. County that's millions of people. It's not a tiny number.''
She noted that each new variant detected in recent weeks has tended to be more infectious than the one that preceded it. And in the case of the variants being detected in South Africa, people who were previously infected with the Omicron variant are being re-infected, meaning the new virus strains are evading that natural immunity.
Ferrer again urged residents to get vaccinated, or to get booster shots, noting that while hospitalizations and deaths tied to the virus remain low, the situation can change.
"We're in a better place, so we can remain hopeful,'' she said. "But we shouldn't lose all of our caution.''
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said that should be particularly true for people who visit retail stores or restaurants, stressing the need to protect workers even if masks are no longer required in such indoor settings.
"The notion is we're not just protecting ourselves. We're really protecting that person at the checkout counter who is coming into contact with 500 people a day,'' she said.
The county reported another 1,888 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, raising the overall pandemic total to 2,879,817. Ferrer noted the county has been averaging more than 2,000 cases per day over the past seven days, a roughly 200% increase from the end of March.
The county also reported seven more virus-related deaths, lifting the overall death toll from throughout the pandemic to 31,977.
According to state figures, there were 236 COVID-positive patients in county hospitals as of Tuesday, up from 225 on Monday. Of those patients, 22 were being treated in intensive care, down from 22 a day earlier.
The average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus in the county was 1.9% as of Tuesday, roughly the same as it has been over the past week.