LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Los Angeles County crossed the grim milestone of 23,000 COVID-19 deaths today as the virus maintained its title as the county's leading cause of the death, but hospitalizations continued a downward trajectory.
Meanwhile, health officials expressed optimism about Gov. Gavin Newsom's announcement that vaccine eligibility will expand to people aged 50 and over on April 1, followed by everyone 16 and up starting two weeks later.
“Expanding vaccine eligibility over the next couple of weeks will make it easier for more people to get vaccinated provided the county receives more doses,'' Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement.
“During these times of scarce supply, our priority is to ensure that residents and workers in hard-hit communities are each able to get vaccinated. As eligibility expands, we will re-double efforts to increase accessibility and availability of vaccine in communities with the highest risk and lower rate of vaccinations.''
Newsom said eligibility is being expanded in response to an anticipated spike in vaccine supply in the state over the next month. Los Angeles County has been receiving, on average, about 300,000 doses per week, despite having the capacity to administer more than double that amount weekly.
The county has already begun discussions with various vaccination providers to expand capacity in light of the upcoming increase in supply.
Meanwhile, health officials have continued to preach adherence to infection-control measures such as face coverings and physical distancing until the bulk of the population is vaccinated.
On Thursday, the county reported another 66 deaths due to COVID-19, while Long Beach health officials added two more, increasing the countywide total from throughout the pandemic to 23,022.
The county also reported another 608 cases, while Long Beach added 56 and Pasadena 13, lifting the cumulative total to 1,216,319.
According to state figures, there were 692 people hospitalized in the county due to COVID as of Thursday, down from 729 on Wednesday. The number of people in intensive care ticked upward, from 169 Wednesday to 183 on Thursday.
Ferrer on Wednesday warned that more-infectious COVID-19 variants are becoming more prevalent in the county, most notably a California-grown variant and another first identified in the United Kingdom. The spread of those variants, which can be more easily passed from person to person, has raised concerns about a possible reversal of the downward trend in infections -- at a time when the county is poised to advance further in the state's economic-reopening blueprint.
But barring any major new surge in COVID case numbers, the county is on track to enter the less-restrictive orange tier of the state's Blueprint for a Safer Economy by the first week in April, likely in the days following Easter Sunday. Once that happens, it will be up to the county to decide whether to fully adhere to the state's orange-tier guidelines for businesses that would be allowed to open or expand capacity.
Moving to the orange tier would authorize the county to lift all capacity restrictions at retail and personal care businesses, while raising the capacity limit from 25% to 50% for movie theaters, churches, museums, zoos, aquariums and restaurants. Fitness center capacity could be increased from 10% to 25%. The orange tier also would allow for bars to reopen outdoors, while card rooms and family entertainment centers could be cleared to resume indoor operations.
Counties, however, are permitted to enact tougher restrictions than the state allows, or to modify the guidelines. For example, Los Angeles County still bans restaurants and breweries from turning on their television sets to prevent gatherings of sports fans -- a rule that is only in place in Los Angeles County.
Ferrer said health officials will work with the county Board of Supervisors and representatives from business sectors impacted by the move to the orange tier, and will “assess what makes sense for L.A. County.''
“We are committed, along with everyone, to move forward,'' she said. “And we are excited about this opportunity to stay on our recovery journey. And we know this means a lot to everyone. But we have to do it in a way that doesn't jeopardize safety.''
Most notably in the orange tier is a possible reopening of bars, with outdoor service only. Ferrer said the county will explore ways of reopening such businesses and “what kind of modifications might really enhance safety as much as possible.''
Breweries and wineries that don't serve food were cleared last weekend to reopen for alcohol service, but with limited hours, required advance reservations for customers and a 90-minute time limit for guests. Ferrer said that list of restrictions, while easily applicable to a brewery or winery, “probably doesn't make a lot of sense when you think about how people generally enjoy being at a bar.''
“That is always going to be a concern because, again, these are places where people can not be wearing their masks and not keeping their distance for long periods of time,'' she said. “... So we'll have to take a hard look at that.''
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