Nearly 9 in 10 Californians now live in counties with high community levels of COVID-19, in which the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal masking in indoor public spaces.
The new developments underscore growing concerns about super-infectious Omicron subvariants that have fueled a summer surge of coronavirus.
With the resurgence of the coronavirus and rising cases and hospitalizations, Los Angeles is set to become the first county in Southern California to reinstate mandatory public indoor masking.
LA County officially entered the high community level on Thursday. If he remains there for the next two weeks, the county will reissue an indoor mask mandate with an effective date of July 29.
No other California county has publicly linked its placement on the CDC’s community scale to a renewal of masking orders. Along with LA, 41 other counties are at the high level this week.
Most places recommend, but do not require, masking indoors in public.
Besides Los Angeles County, other counties that entered the COVID-19 high community level category Thursday for the first time since mid-March include San Diego, Orange, Santa Barbara, Imperial and Tehama.
A total of 42 of California’s 58 counties are now at the high COVID-19 community level, in which 87% of California residents live. Just a week earlier, 41% of Californians lived in the 34 counties with a high community level of COVID-19.
Ventura County was the first Southern California county to enter the high community level for COVID-19, which it did on June 30.
With high case rates, counties typically enter the high COVID-19 community level when hospitalizations exceed a threshold of 10 new weekly coronavirus-positive hospitalizations per 100,000 population.
(There is also another threshold for entering the high community COVID-19 level — based on the percentage of inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients — but counties typically reach the other threshold first.)
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in February it chose these measures as the threshold for entering the high community level of COVID-19 because they provided a good predictor of deaths, new hospital admissions and the use of intensive care units.
The system was put in place to help inform people when it was relatively more important to mask up in indoor public places. “Multi-level prevention strategies — like staying up to date on vaccines and wearing masks — can help prevent serious illness and reduce strain on the healthcare system,” the CDC said in February.
The California Department of Public Health has strongly recommended universal masking in indoor public spaces for people age 2 and older since the state lifted a two-month-old mask order in February.
Rates of coronavirus cases in Los Angeles County continue to rise at a rapid rate.
LA County is now averaging about 6,800 new coronavirus cases per day, which is a 35% week-over-week increase. This is the largest week-over-week increase seen since the days leading up to Memorial Day weekend.
Last winter’s Omicron wave peaked at 42,000 cases per day.
On a per capita basis, LA County was reporting 469 weekly coronavirus cases per 100,000 population on Friday; a rate of 100 or more is considered high. The rate of coronavirus cases hasn’t been this high since early February.
A renewed mandate for Los Angeles County would apply indoors for ages 2 and up in a host of familiar settings and locations – including shared offices, manufacturing and retail environments, event spaces, restaurants and bars, gyms and yoga studios, educational environments and children’s programs.
Importantly, masks would not be necessary for those using outdoor spaces, as the risk of transmission in these environments is significantly lower than indoors.
Customers could also remove their mask indoors when actively eating or drinking.
“We are not closing anything. We don’t ask people not to get together with the people they love. We’re not asking you to give up the activities you enjoy,” Barbara Ferrer, Los Angeles County’s director of public health, said last week. “We ask that you take reasonable action when there is so much transmission, with a highly transmissible variant, to go ahead and put on a well-fitting, high-filtration mask when you are indoors with others. And I think that’s the safest thing to do.
The new wave has been fueled by BA.5, a super-infectious subvariant that has shown the ability to re-infect even those who have recently contracted an earlier Omicron subvariant.