LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Indoor mask-wearing will no longer be mandatory in Los Angeles County starting today, thanks to revised data released by federal health officials showing a decreased impact of COVID-19 on the county's health-care system.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially moved the county out of its ``high'' virus activity category and into the ``low'' category. The CDC updates its county-level data every Thursday.
The CDC designations are based largely on the number of new virus- related hospital admissions and on the percentage of hospital beds being occupied by COVID-positive patients, along with a county's overall rate of new COVID cases.
County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said that given the CDC revision of the county's classification, a new Health Officer Order will be issued that removes the county's long-standing mandate for people to wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status. That move will put the county in alignment with the state, which dropped its mask mandate on Tuesday.
Mask-wearing, however, will continue to be ``strongly recommended,'' particularly in crowded settings or while interacting with people at higher risk of severe illness from the virus.
Masking will continue to be required in higher-risk settings, including health care facilities, transit centers, airports, aboard public transit, in correctional facilities and at homeless shelters and long-term care facilities.
Indoor masks also continue to be required on K-12 school campuses, although the county and state will lift that requirement on March 12. The policy, however, is expected to remain in place in the Los Angeles Unified School District until the end of the school year.
Ferrer warned Thursday that despite the lifting of COVID-related mandates, people shouldn't think that life is completely returning to normal.
``It's very tempting to think the pandemic is over and we can return to the way things were before the pandemic,'' she said. ``And while transmission has greatly slowed and we're in a much better place with our powerful tools that help so many avoid the worst effects of this virus, there do continue to be thousands of people whose lives, families and work are disrupted each day because either they or someone close to them is newly infected with COVID-19. And for some of these people, their infection can and will lead to more severe illness.''
County Board of Supervisors Chair Holly Mitchell echoed that sentiment, noting that while countywide COVID metrics are improving, there are individual communities that have higher case rates and more susceptibility to the virus.
She said that ``as we move back into our new status of low risk,'' it should be clear ``at the community level that we can't have a one-size-fits-all approach to ongoing prevention practices.''
``And so, again, hoping people will do what's best for them, their families and their communities in choosing to continue to mask or not,'' she said. ``We need to be conscientious and follow the guidance, really making sure we're prioritizing the needs of the county as a whole with common-sense protections that really enable everyone to thrive.''
Ferrer noted that people attending indoor mega-events of 1,000 or more people -- such as sporting events -- will still be required to show proof of COVID vaccination or a recent negative test to be admitted. Vaccine verification or a negative test will also still be required for workers at health care facilities and congregate-care facilities.
The county has dropped its requirement that people show proof of vaccination to patronize indoor portions of bars, nightclubs and lounges or outdoor mega-events.
However, a city of Los Angeles ordinance that took effect Nov. 8 remains in effect, requiring people over age 12 to show proof of vaccination before patronizing indoor restaurants, gyms, entertainment and recreational facilities, personal care establishments, some city buildings and mega-events with 5,000 or more attendees. People can be exempt from that mandate for medical reasons or if they have a ``sincerely held religious belief,'' and each business is responsible for reviewing exemptions.
City Council President Nury Martinez's office said Thursday the city is working with county public health officials and city departments to ``figure out next steps'' following the county's loosening of vaccine-verification rules.
While the mask mandate is being lifted, Ferrer warned that the virus remains a threat. She said the county will be monitoring seven ``alert signals'' that could portend increased virus activity and lead to a resurgence of some limited restrictions. Three of the ``alert signals'' are community-wide metrics -- the emergence of variants of concern, COVID-19 emergency department visits and cumulative COVID case rates in high-poverty communities.
The other four ``alert signals'' involve specific sectors, tracking outbreaks at skilled nursing facilities, at K-12 schools, at homeless shelters and at worksites.
If two or more of the signals rise to alert levels, it will trigger a county investigation into the reasons for the increases, and whether some specific mitigation measures need to be imposed.
Ferrer noted that as of Thursday, only one category of the monitoring areas was in the ``alert'' range, with seven new school outbreaks reported over the past week. She said health officials have been investigating the issue, and as a result, will strongly recommend that students and staff continue to wear masks indoors even when the requirement is lifted. The county is also recommending other improvements at schools, such as improved ventilation indoors and stepped-up monitoring for symptoms of illness and weekly testing of unvaccinated people.
She called the recommendations examples of the types of steps the county may take if other ``alert signals'' are triggered.
The county reported 59 new COVID-19 deaths Thursday, raising the overall death toll from the virus to 30,911.
The county also reported a total of 1,605 new COVID cases, raising the cumulative pandemic total to 2,800,741.
The rolling average daily rate of people testing for the virus was 1.2% as of Thursday, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
According to state figures, there were 852 COVID-positive patients in county hospitals as of Thursday, down from 907 on Wednesday. Of those patients, 137 were being treated in intensive care, down from 157 the previous day.
Ferrer said that as of Thursday, 83% of eligible county residents aged 5 and older have received at least one dose of COVID vaccine, while 74% are fully vaccinated and 37% are fully vaccinated with a booster shot. Of the county's overall 10.3 million population, 78% have received at least one dose, 70% are fully vaccinated, and 35% are vaccinated and boosted.
Children aged 5-11 have the lowest vaccination rate, with 35% receiving at least one dose and 29% fully vaccinated.