LA County falls to ‘medium’ COVID level as infections increase

As anticipated, increasing spread of COVID-19 has resulted in Los Angeles County being shifted from the federal government’s “low” virus-activity level to “medium”—prompting calls from county officials to mask up indoors, get vaccinated and boosted and get tested at the first sign of illness.

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

Long Beach, which has its own health department and tracks its own metrics, was reporting a cumulative seven-day rate of only 180 Thursday morning, but its cases, too, have been rising—up from 155 a week ago. The percentage of tests coming back positive for coronavirus in Long Beach has also risen steadily to 8.3% as of Thursday, up from just 3.1% a month ago. Demand for testing has ticked up as well, according to data from the city, but it remains orders of magnitude below the winter, when cases were surging.

The new designation for LA County will not trigger any immediate changes in health regulations. The county was already maintaining stepped-up precautionary recommendations that align with the CDC’s guidelines under the “medium” ranking. Those include requiring masks on public transit and at high-risk settings such as hospitals and homeless shelters, and maintaining widespread availability of vaccines and access to testing, including at-home tests.

The county still is not mandating indoor mask-wearing in all public settings, but it is being strongly recommended. Masks would become mandatory indoors if the county slips into the “high” COVID level. It’s unclear if Long Beach would follow suit. The city can set its own rules but typically has followed the county’s lead on coronavirus restrictions to avoid confusion.

Reaching “high” covid levels would require a sharp increase in COVID-related hospitalizations.

Numbers of COVID-positive patients have been increasing in recent weeks, and the percentage of emergency room visits associated with the virus crept up to 5% over the past week—up from 4% the previous week. But so far, the overall hospital statistics are still well within the CDC’s parameters for the “medium” COVID level.

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.

County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the county’s current rate of new COVID-related admissions is 3.4 per 100,000 residents, and the rate of hospital beds occupied by COVID-positive patients is roughly 1.7%.

Hospitalizations also remain low in Long Beach, with 23 COVID-positive patients in local hospitals, up from 16 a week ago.

Ferrer said she remains “hopeful” that the county will avoid sliding into the “high” COVID community level, but only if residents and businesses don’t “shy away” from safety practices “that are known to reduce transmission,” such as indoor masking and ensuring people are up to date on vaccinations.

The recent increase in cases has been largely blamed on spread of the highly infectious BA.2 subvariant of the Omicron variant, which sparked a major surge in cases over the winter. But Ferrer on Thursday reported a dramatic increase in cases caused by the even more infectious BA.2.12.1 offshoot of the variant. According to the latest results, 27% of cases that underwent specialized testing to identify variants were found to be BA.2.12.1—up from3% a month ago.

The county has now also identified six cases of BA.4 and one case of BA.5, two variants that have caused widespread infections in South Africa.

Ferrer noted that the currently available COVID vaccines are still effective in preventing the variants from causing severe illness. She renewed her call for residents to get vaccinated and to get booster shots when eligible.

“The task in front of us is similar to the work we’ve had to do at other points over the past two and a half years—slowing transmission,” she said.

Long Beach sees rise in new COVID-19 cases, though deaths and hospitalizations remain low

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