L.A. County hits high COVID-19 community level as possible mask mandate looms

Los Angeles County has again entered the high COVID-19 community level, further indication that the continuing spike in cases is starting to exert pressure on the region’s hospitals.

Should hospitalization rates continue to rise this month, the county could be on track for a renewed universal mask order in indoor public settings. But it’s uncertain when such a rule might be handed down — or whether one will materialize at all.

L.A. County has already met one of two criteria that would trigger a new mandate: a relatively high rate of new coronavirus-positive hospitalizations. The county is now reporting 14.8 new coronavirus-positive hospitalizations a week for every 100,000 residents; a rate of 10 or more is considered particularly worrisome.

The second focuses on the share of staffed hospital beds occupied by coronavirus-positive patients. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6.9% of L.A. County’s staffed hospital beds are being used by coronavirus-infected patients, up from 2% at the start of November. However, that figure would need to be 10% or greater for a mask mandate to be on the table.

Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer has estimated that L.A. County might reach the second benchmark around Dec. 19, assuming current trends persist. Should L.A. County still be above that threshold Dec. 22 — and remain so for two weeks — a mask mandate would be announced Jan. 5 and go into effect a day later.

L.A. County hasn’t been in the high COVID-19 community level since summer, the last time when it appeared a mask mandate might be imminent. Placement in that category, which is defined by the CDC, requires a county to have an elevated level of coronavirus transmission and meet a certain hospitalization threshold.

The county’s move into the high COVID-19 community level Thursday was the result of its case rate exceeding 200 cases a week for every 100,000 residents.

Eight California counties entered the high COVID-19 community level Thursday: Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Imperial, Kings, San Benito and Tuolumne. Nearly 15 million Californians live in those areas, accounting for 38% of the state’s population.

When a county’s community level is high, the CDC recommends residents “wear a high-quality mask or respirator,” and that those “at high risk of getting very sick consider avoiding non-essential indoor activities in public” where they could be exposed to the coronavirus.

Seventeen counties entered the medium COVID-19 community level: San Diego, Riverside, Alameda, Contra Costa, Ventura, San Joaquin, Tulare, Solano, Napa, Sutter, Yuba, Lake, Calaveras, Lassen, Del Norte, Colusa and Inyo.

They joined 18 counties already in the medium level: Orange, Sacramento, Fresno, Stanislaus, Monterey, Placer, Merced, Yolo, Butte, El Dorado, Madera, Nevada, Mendocino, Tehama, Siskiyou, Glenn, Mariposa and Sierra.

There are 20 million Californians who live in the 35 counties in the medium level, accounting for 51% of the state’s population.

When a county’s COVID-19 community level is medium, the CDC recommends people at high risk of getting very sick to wear a mask or respirator in indoor public settings.

Two counties fell from the medium to low COVID-19 community levels: Sonoma and Marin counties. The other 13 counties in the state that remain in the low level are Kern, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Shasta, Humboldt, Amador, Plumas, Mono, Trinity, Modoc and Alpine.

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