With COVID-19 hospitalizations continuing to rise, Los Angeles County is on pace to reach the “high” virus activity level by next week, which could equate to another universal indoor mask-wearing mandate by the end of the month, the public health director said.

The county is currently in the “medium” virus activity level, as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It will reach the “high” category if the seven-day average of new COVID-related hospital admissions reaches 10 per 100,000 residents.

As of Thursday, the county’s admission rate was 8.4 per 100,000 residents. But given the rate of increase over the past two weeks, the county is on pace to reach 10 per 100,000 residents by next Thursday, Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in an online briefing. She stressed that the estimate is only a projection, which could change dramatically based on admission numbers in the coming days.

If the county remains at that high level for two consecutive weeks, it will re-impose a mandatory indoor mask-wearing mandate. Under the current schedule, that would happen on July 29.

“We don’t have the luxury of doing nothing,” Ferrer said, pointing to the high level of virus spread in the county—increasingly fueled by the BA.4 and BA.5 variants of the virus—and rising hospitalization numbers.

“… What makes the most sense is to remain committed to protecting one another,” she said.

Long Beach, which has its own health department, would not be automatically included in the mandate, but city officials have typically aligned their rules with the county.

According to state figures, there were 989 COVID-positive patients in county hospitals as of Thursday, up from 920 a day earlier. The number of patients being treated in intensive care was 103, up from 89 on Wednesday.

Health officials have said that many of those patients entered the hospital for other reasons before testing positive for COVID, but they still place an added burden on hospital staff as they require special infection-control measures. Ferrer said roughly 40% of patients with the virus were admitted for COVID illness, while 60% were admitted for other reasons.

Ferrer clarified on Thursday that the hospital admission rate being relied upon by the county in determining the “high” community level differs from the one being reported weekly by the CDC. She said the CDC figure relating to hospital admission rates actually combines Los Angeles and Orange counties, and Orange County has a substantially higher admission rate than Los Angeles.

The CDC website on Thursday showed both Los Angeles and Orange counties with a COVID hospital admission rate of 9.7 per 100,000 residents, putting both on the precipice of entering the “high” virus activity level.

Taken separately, however, Los Angeles’ rate is only 8.4 per 100,000, while Orange County’s is 13.3 per 100,000.

Los Angeles County will be relying on its separate local rate when determining when the two-week clock will begin ticking on a universal indoor mask-wearing mandate.

The county reported 5,316 additional COVID cases on Thursday, raising the cumulative total from throughout the pandemic to 3,153,690. Another 13 new deaths were also reported, lifting the overall virus-related death toll to 32,397. The average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus rose to 16.9%.

Ferrer noted that the BA.4 and BA.5 variants of the COVID are now responsible for nearly 40% of all specially sequenced cases—roughly two-and-a-half times higher than two weeks ago. Nationally, the CDC estimates those two variants are responsible for about 70% of sequenced cases.

The number of new cases announced by the county each day is believed to be an undercount due to the prevalence of take-home COVID tests, the results of which are not always reported to the county.

Pride is arriving at a tense moment, which is why organizers say it’s as vital as ever