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Health Officials Consider Mask Mandates As Covid Cases & Hospitalizations Surge

There’s a growing chorus from public health officials being heard across the country this week, and it consists of one just word: “Masks.”

Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer on a Zoom with reporters today recommended, “Everyone two years of age and older should wear a mask in indoor gatherings and indoor settings such as businesses, restaurants and indoors at schools.”

Likewise last Friday, a group of health officers from the Bay Area issued a rare joint statement strongly recommending — but not requiring — residents to once again wear face coverings indoors.

“If you’ve chosen not to wear a mask in indoor public places recently, now is a good time to start again,” Dr. George Han, deputy health officer for Santa Clara County told the San Francisco Chronicle.

A little further south, the Pacific Grove Unified School District in Monterey, CA on Monday decided to mandate all students and staff wear masks indoors, beginning Tuesday, as infections rise there.

School districts in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois have done the same this week.

Top Biden administration officials warned Wednesday that one-third of Americans live in communities the CDC considers at high risk (orange on the map below) and recommends masks be mandated in those areas.

Areas in orange indicate high transmission
CDC

“We urge local leaders to encourage use of prevention strategies like masks in public indoor settings and increasing access to testing and treatment,” said Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

About two weeks ago, the CDC issued a new recommendation that masks be worn by all persons two years old up “in indoor areas of public transportation (such as airplanes, trains, etc.) and transportation hubs (such as airports, stations, etc.).” The CDC also encouraged people to wear face coverings “in crowded or poorly ventilated locations, such as airport jetways.”

New York City, which last year had some of the most stringent requirements, will not return to masking, even though it entered the high risk category this week amid a surge in hospitalizations. Mayor Eric Adams said he doesn’t want to mandate masks, even though the CDC recommends it.

“If every variant that comes, we move into shutdown thoughts, we move into panicking, we’re not going to function as a city,” said Adams, according to the New York Times.

Would he consider them for schools? “No,” Adams replied.

The answer is different in L.A., where Ferrer has repeated over the past week-plus some version of what she said today: “Once we are designated as a high community level we will go back to requiring those masks indoors.”

The county’s not there yet, but the rising rate of Covid spread in Los Angeles caused it to be moved today from the CDC’s “low” virus level to “medium.”

According to federal and county data, the local cumulative seven-day rate of new Covid cases rose to 202 per 100,000 residents, up from about 176 per 100,000 last week. With the number topping 200, the county is now considered to have “medium” community levels, a designation that comes with recommendations for heightened precautions against virus spread.

The move will not trigger any immediate changes in local health regulations, however. L.A. had already stepped up precautionary recommendations that align with the CDC’s guidelines — such as masking on public transit and high-risk settings such as hospitals, doctor’s offices and homeless shelters.

“We hope that by implementing strong community prevention measures, we’ll avoid going to high,” Ferrer told reporters.

That means “businesses and individuals need to not shy away from stronger safety measures,” she said, noting those include indoor masking.

Under CDC guidelines, counties in the medium category will move to high if the rate of new virus-related hospital admissions reaches 10 per 100,000 residents, or if 10% of the county’s staffed hospital beds are occupied by COVID-positive patients.

Ferrer said today that the county’s current rate of new Covid admissions is 3.4 per 100,000 residents, and the rate of hospital beds occupied by COVID-positive patients is just under 1.7%.

About a week ago, however, daily hospitalizations of people with Covid in the region began creeping up. From 252 last Thursday, they rose to 312 virus-positive patients in county hospitals as of this Monday, 327 on Tuesday, 363 Wednesday and 379 today. While the numbers are still relatively small, that’s about a 50% rise in one week.

Over the same period cases have jumped from 3407 last Thursday to 4725 today, a rise of 38% in one week.

The average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus, while still relatively low, rose 34% from a 7-day average test positivity of 2.6% last Thursday to 3.5% today.

Since hospitalizations generally lag infections by a couple weeks, rising case and test positivity would seem to indicate a substantial increase in Covid-related hospitalizations through the end of the month.

City News Service contributed to this report.

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