LA County Board to Hear COVID Update as Possible Mask Mandate Looms

LOS ANGELES (CNS) – The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will receive its regular update from the Department of Public Health on the status of the COVID-19 pandemic Tuesday, one day after Supervisor Kathryn Barger formally opposed plans to reinstate an indoor mask-wearing mandate by week’s end.

That mandate, once all-but-certain to take effect on Friday, could potentially be delayed, depending on trends in new COVID case numbers and hospitalization figures in the next couple days.

Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told reporters last week that after weeks of steady increases, infection numbers appeared to be leveling off. She said health officials would be watching the numbers closely in coming days to see if the leveling-off was a temporary anomaly or an emerging trend. She even indicated that if the numbers show signs of a sharp decline, “we are likely to want to take a pause on moving too quickly on universal indoor masking.”

Barger on Monday said she will not support a re-imposing of a universal indoor masking mandate. In an open letter sent to her Fifth District constituents, Barger said she believes “masking mandates are polarizing and unenforceable,” and said she does not believe such a move would have any major impact.

“I have not seen any empirical data that conclusively shows that masking mandates make a difference in decreasing or stopping COVID-19 transmission rates,” Barger wrote. “An analysis of Alameda County’s June 2022 masking mandate, in fact, concluded it had no significant impact in comparison to its surrounding counties that did not impose a masking mandate. Alameda County dropped this mandate after only three weeks.”

She added that a mandate “will not make a meaningful improvement to the underlying systemic health care inequities that are the true drivers of inequitable rates of COVID-19 deaths and long-term, negative effects.”

Barger said in her open statement Monday that she does not oppose mask- wearing, saying it “makes a lot of sense for individuals who want or need an extra layer of protection.”

“I support our current COVID-19 public health masking policies, which require their use while using public transportation, in hospitals, homeless shelters and jails. However, imposing a one-size-fits-all masking mandate now for all is not something I can or will support,” she wrote.

The Los Angeles County Business Federation, or BizFed, issued a statement last week also opposing a mask-wearing mandate, saying it will put undue burden on small businesses that will have to enforce the requirement.

A decision on whether to impose a new mask mandate was expected to occur Thursday, with hospital numbers the deciding factor.

Ferrer has said that if the county remains in the “high” virus- activity level as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for two consecutive weeks, the mask mandate would be re-imposed. The county is set to reach that two-week mark on Thursday, meaning the mandate would take effect Friday.

Los Angeles County moved into the CDC’s “high” level of COVID-19 community activity earlier this month, when the average daily rate of virus- related hospital admissions rose to 10.5 per 100,000 residents, surpassing the threshold of 10 per 100,000. On Thursday, Ferrer said the admission rate over the past week rose to 11.4 per 100,000.

Steve Farzam, Chief Operating Officer at 911 COVID Testing, said record breaking rates of transmissions in Los Angeles County has prompted its medical director to elevate the readiness level to a full tactical alert to accommodate the rising testing demand resulting from the resurgence of new COVID cases.

“The decision to modify our tactical alert from low to high is directly related to the surge in new cases to preempt the devastating effects of this past December’s surge,” Farzam said.

Nearly 400 Transportation Security Administration workers and staff at Los Angeles International Airport have recently tested positive for COVID and it is affecting how many LAX employees are available to work.

As infection rates continue to increase across Los Angeles, Farzam said he urges the public to exercise caution by not falling prey to complacency, “with immunity waning coupled with the controversy of masking requirements, we’re experiencing an influx of infection rates and have consequently had to adjust our capacity to accommodate the high demand for testing.”

On Friday, however, the county saw a sharp drop in the number of COVID- positive patients hospitalized in the county, with the figure dropping by about 80 people to reach 1,247. The number fell again on Saturday to an even 1,200. Updated figures were not immediately available on Monday.

Despite Barger’s doubt about the effectiveness of masks, Ferrer has repeatedly stressed during recent briefings that studies have proven that masks drive down transmission rates. She called mask-wearing an easy, “sensible” step that can protect against virus spread, particularly in indoor settings.

Although dozens of counties in California are also in the “high” virus-activity category, Los Angeles is the only one considering a mask mandate. Ferrer has acknowledged a lack of any formalized enforcement plan, saying the county relies primarily on education in hopes of convincing people to wear face coverings. She also said the county does not expect business owners to become enforcement agents.

“We rely heavily on people understanding why it’s important for us to add in this layer of protection at this point, and most people in the past have gone ahead and been compliant,” she said. “We’ll continue to work with everyone and make sure there’s good information.”

Masks are already still mandated in some indoor spaces — health care facilities, transit hubs, on transit vehicles, airports, correctional facilities and shelters. A universal mandate would spread the requirement to all indoor public spaces, including shared office spaces, manufacturing facilities, retail stores, indoor events, indoor restaurants and bars and schools.

The county on Monday reported 6,914 new infections from Saturday, 5,333 from Sunday and 3,072 on Monday. The county no longer reports case numbers on weekends, so it issues three-day totals on Mondays.

The new cases gave the county a cumulative total from throughout the pandemic of 3,268,588. The numbers reported by the county are believed to be an undercount, due to the wide use of at-home tests, the results of which are not always reported to health officials.

Another 33 deaths were also reported on Monday for the three-day reporting period, raising the overall virus-related death toll in the county to 32,637. The average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was 14.3% as of Monday, down from roughly 16% last week.

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