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Questions Raised as County Poised to Order Indoor Masking

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By Jorge Casuso

July 18, 2022 -- As Los Angeles County prepares to bring back indoor mask mandates, some health officials are questioning whether the added measure is warranted and the Sheriff is vowing not to enforce it.

The County's move is triggered by the rapid spread of the highly contagious BA.4 and BA.5 subvarients, which have pushed hospitalizations above the "high" Covid Community threshold set by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

But in a widely circulated video, Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center officials downplayed the severity of the virus whose spread is being used to justify the need for indoor masking.

"It is just not the same pandemic as it was, despite all the media hype to the contrary," said Dr. Brad Spelberg, County-USC's chief medical officer, during a town hall meeting for staff last Thursday

"A lot of people have bad colds is what we're seeing," he said.

According to Spelberg, 10 percent of County-USC's COVID positive patients "are admitted due to COVID."

"Virtually none of them go to the ICU," he said, "and when they do go to the ICU, it is not for pneumonia. They are not intubated."

During the town hall, epidemiologist Paul Holtom said he believes the hospital's experience is reflected countywide.

While County Health officials have been carefully tracking hospitalizations -- which have increased 88 percent in the past month -- they stopped listing ICU data months ago.

On Thursday, Health officials announced that the previous day, the County had entered the High Covid Community Level after new hospital admissions reached 10.5 per 100,000 people, exceeding the threshold of 10 per 100,000.

If LA County remains in the High COVID-19 Community Level for two consecutive weeks, Health officials warned, "universal indoor masking will be implemented on July 29 to help slow the rate of transmission and protect those most vulnerable."

But while the number of confirmed cases reached a recent daily high of 8,954 on Friday, it was dwarfed the more than 45,000 daily cases reported in early January, while the number of virus related deaths, though increasing, remains low.

In fact, there were far fewer virus-related deaths reported last week -- a daily average of 13 -- than there were the week Health officials lifted the last masking mandate on March 4 -- when the daily average was 57 deaths, according to an analysis of the data.

In a statement issued Monday, County Health officials acknowledged that County-USC is not currently experiencing an increase in ICU admissions but called the rising rates of infection "extremely concerning."

Officials also confirmed Spelberg's contention that the 600-bed hospital has "not had a patient intubated due to COVID for several months."

"In contrast to our peak during the winter of 2020, when we had 285 COVID+ patients in the hospital, 120 of whom were in the ICU, we currently have approximately 30 COVID+ patients in the hospital, of whom 3 were admitted for COVID, none of whom are in the ICU," County Health officials wrote.

If the hospitalization rate remains above the threshold, as expected, Los Angeles County would become the only county in California to reimpose an indoor mask mandate.

The mandate would apply for those age 2 and older in a wide array of venues, including "shared office space, manufacturing and retail settings, event spaces, restaurants and bars, gyms and yoga studios, educational settings and children’s programs," according to a report in the LA Times.

Patrons "would be able to take off their masks indoors when actively eating or drinking," the Times reported.

Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer recognized the mandate would not be popular with many County residents.

"For many this will feel like a step backwards," Ferrer said. "For others, indoor masking will feel unnecessary because of the availability of powerful vaccines and therapeutics.

"The reality is that because we are living with a mutating SARS-CoV-2 virus, there remains uncertainty around the trajectory of the pandemic."

On Saturday, LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said his officers would not be enforcing an indoor masking mandate.

"Forcing the vaccinated and those who already contracted COVID-19 to wear masks indoors is not backed by science and contradicts the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines," Villanueva said in a statement.

"The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (DPH) has authority to enforce the order, but the underfunded/defunded Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department will not expend our limited resources and instead ask for voluntary compliance.

"We encourage the DPH to work collaboratively with the Board of Supervisors and law enforcement to establish mandates that are both achievable and supported by science," Villanueva said.

There were 464 COVID cases confirmed in Santa Monica last week, up from 313 the previous week. There were no new virus-related deaths, which typically take two weeks to report.

That brings the total number of cases to 22,096 since Santa Monica's first cases was confirmed on March 16, 2020. A total of 251 residents have died with the virus.

Countywide, there have been 3,225,697 confirmed cases to date and 32,537 deaths, according to County data. There were 1,252 people who tested positive hospitalized on Saturday.

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