LA County returns to 'strongly recommending' masks indoors as COVID cases rise

With COVID-19 infection rates sharply increasing since the beginning of November, Los Angeles County Thursday returned to "strongly recommending" that people wear masks in all indoor public settings.

The recommendation falls short of a masking mandate, but masks are still required indoors at health-care and congregate-care facilities, for anyone exposed to the virus in the past 10 days, and at locations where they are required by the operator, county Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis said.

For the past few months, indoor masking has been a matter of personal preference, unless individual businesses or locations chose to require them. The county shifted back to "strongly recommending" indoor mask-wearing on Thursday when the local seven-day average of daily new COVID-19 infections rose to 100 per 100,000 residents, up from 86 per 100,000 a week ago. The rate the previous week was 65 per 100,000 residents.

"Now it is strongly recommended that all individuals wear a high-quality mask that fits well in the following settings: in public indoor spaces; when using public transit, including buses, ride-shares, taxis and medical transport; correctional and detention facilities; and homeless and emergency shelters," Davis said.

The increasing case rate mirrored steady rises seen in daily reported case numbers and hospitalizations since the beginning of November.

Davis said the county is currently reporting about 1,500 new cases per day, up from 1,300 per day a week ago and up 52% since Nov. 1. He noted that the reported cases only represent a portion of actual infections occurring in the county, since many residents rely on at-home tests that are not reported to health officials, while many more don't get tested at all.

Average daily COVID-related hospital admissions are averaging 97 per day, up 26% from 77 per day last week, and a 54% jump since Nov. 1, Davis said.

As of Thursday, the number of COVID-positive patients in county hospitals rose to 648, up from 589 the previous day. Of those patients, 77 were being treated in intensive care, up from 75 a day earlier.

Health officials have said previously that roughly 40% of the patients were actually admitted for COVID-related issues, while the rest were admitted for other reasons but tested positive at the hospital.

Daily reported virus-related deaths remain relatively low, at about eight per day, but Davis said with the increases in case rates and hospitalizations, that number could begin to climb.

RELATED: LA County reports sudden rise in weekly COVID cases, warns of winter surge

Health officials have been warning of a third straight winter surge of COVID-19 cases, noting the increased risk of transmission as people spend more time indoors due to colder weather and the winter holidays. Davis on Thursday also noted the continued threat of new variants emerging that can spread more rapidly from person to person, even those who are vaccinated.

He again urged residents to get vaccinated or receive the latest available booster, which is engineered to combat the current Omicron variants. He also insisted on the safety effects of masks, citing a recent Harvard University study of Massachusetts school districts following the lifting of mask mandates on campuses.

According to Davis, the study found that districts lifting mask mandates had a COVID infection rate of 128 per 1,000 people, while those with masking had a rate of 66 per 1,000.

He urged residents to exercise caution over the Thanksgiving and other winter holidays, particularly while attending large gatherings.

"We are grateful this year to have the tools that allow us to gather with a lot of safety," he said. ``It will mean however that all of us likely will need to take some common sense precautions to avoid future disruptions and the spread of illness.

He said that includes being up to date on all vaccinations, including COVID and flu shots,

Thursday's COVID case numbers were not immediately available. On Wednesday, the county reported another 2,215 infections, giving the county a cumulative total from throughout the pandemic of 3,511,076.

Another nine virus-related fatalities were reported Wednesday, giving the county an overall death toll of 34,081.

The seven-day average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was 7.1% on Wednesday, up from 5.6% a week ago.