Los Angeles County's health director presented a set of criteria Tuesday being monitored for a possible lifting of mask-wearing mandates at large outdoor events and in indoor settings such as workplaces, but the requirements likely mean face coverings will be around into the new year.
The county has maintained its strict masking requirements despite growing vaccination numbers and downward trends in COVID-19 hospitalizations and infections.
Speaking to the county Board of Supervisors, Barbara Ferrer said the Department of Public Health has developed a list of key metrics the county must meet before the mask mandate can be lifted for large outdoor events and in indoor settings with less than 1,000 people.
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Most notably, the county must have three consecutive weeks of "moderate'' virus transmission as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That means the county must have a cumulative seven-day new case rate of less than 50 per 100,000 residents. According to the CDC, the county's current rate is 83 per 100,000 residents, landing the county in the "substantial'' transmission category. Ferrer noted that the county's rate last week was about 72, meaning virus transmission has actually increased in the last seven days.
Other criteria that must be reached to consider lifting masking requirements are three consecutive weeks of low hospitalization numbers, a full-vaccination rate of 80% of residents aged 12 and older, and no emerging reports of widely circulating COVID-19 "variants of concern'' that could lead to new surges of infections.
For indoor settings of people less than 1,000 people, including worksites, all of the same criteria must be met, and such settings must have a vaccine-verification system in place and full vaccination of all employees and customers, with other requirements for those with approved vaccine exemptions.
Hospitalization numbers have fallen sharply in the county since the summer surge of cases that saw patient numbers reach 1,800. However, the decline has plateaued in recent weeks, with the number of COVID patients in the county at 653 as of Tuesday, according to state figures.
As of Oct. 28, 80% of county residents aged 12 and up have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 72% are fully vaccinated. Ferrer said she is hopeful that the county will reach 80% full vaccination of all residents in that age group by the winter holidays.
Ferrer said she is hopeful the county "can reach a lower level of community transmission that positions us to use the criteria ... to lift the masking requirements.''
"Until then, while transmission remains substantial, we need to continue layering on protections, understanding that significant spread of the virus affects unvaccinated individuals and increasingly results in post-vaccination infections among those vaccinated,'' she said. "Substantial spread also creates a fertile breeding ground for new variants that can threaten our progress to date.''
Ferrer noted that the county has seen increases in infection rates and hospitalizations over the past week, mirroring trends seen in some other California counties and overseas in places including the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy.
"The trends in other places signify the need to remain vigilant and focused on preventing a significant winter-time surge,'' she said.
The 653 COVID hospitalizations in the county as of Tuesday represented a slight drop from Monday, when 659 were reported. Of those hospitalized, 166 were being treated in intensive care, down from 173 on Monday.
Ferrer reported another 17 COVID deaths on Tuesday, giving the county an overall death toll of 26,661. She also announced 896 new cases, for a cumulative pandemic total of 1,495,014.
The rolling average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was about 1% as of Tuesday.