Public Health: Likelihood of indoor mask mandate increasing, but still not imminent

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The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Logo, courtesy of Facebook

While the possibility of a universal indoor mask mandate – akin to the one seen during the height of pandemic – is still possibly weeks away, its likelihood is increasing by the day.  

Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, stated in her weekly health briefing that if the county’s health care system continues to be strained it will trigger an indoor mask mandate.  

“If both hospital indicators, the new COVID-19 admissions and the proportion of staffed inpatient beds occupied by COVID patients, surpasses the threshold for high and our case rate is at, or above, 200 new cases per 100,000 people, L.A. County will follow the [Centers for Disease Control’s] guidance for communities designated at the high community level, including universal indoor masking.” 

The triggering of an indoor mask mandate is based on the CDC’s community levels framework that measures the strain put on a local health care system by COVID-19. Ferrer stated that both of the framework’s hospital metrics (new COVID-19 admissions per 100,000 and proportion of staffed inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients) will need to move into the “high” tier before a mandate is issued.  

Currently, both are in the “medium tier” – with admissions at 11.9 per 100,000 people and staffed inpatient beds at 5.6%. Both are seven-day averages. Ferrer said she thinks it’s unlikely the second metric (staffed in-patient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients) will creep into the “high” category by next week, saying, “I do not think, by next week we’ll have met the second hospital metric moving into ‘high.’” 

Ferrer attributes this to the growing amount of therapeutic options that are now available to those who are sick – which prevent many from having to be hospitalized — and she also stated that, as of now, the county’s health care system is strained.  

However, this could change in the coming weeks. Ferrer said the Health Department is “puzzled” by the recent increase in case rates.  

“Our numbers… are not as high as what we saw in 2020, but they’re significantly higher compared to what we saw this time last year,” said Ferrer.  

During the winter surge last year – dominated by the Omicron variant – there was an average of 856 cases per day and 63 hospitalizations per day. Those numbers are now at 2,483 per day and 192 per day, respectively. These numbers are usually an undercount, though, given the rise of at-home testing that isn’t reported or counted.  

“There is this common line of thinking that the pandemic is over and COVID is no longer of concern,” said Ferrer. “But these numbers clearly demonstrate that COVID is still with us.”  

Deaths from COVID-19 have remained steady at an average of eight deaths per day, but these numbers are lagging indicators. More accurate death statistics caused by the recent surge will be available in two to three weeks.  

While an indoor masking mandate is still possibly weeks away, it’s still being advised by the Health Department, which, along with vaccination, could help prevent a mandate from going into place. If one does go into effect, it will apply to virtually every indoor space including workplaces and schools.  

“If we do move into high and the CDC maintains their guidance, again we’re aligning with the CDC guidance on this, we would ask for universal indoor masking,” said Ferrer.  

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