Variants: Subvariants of Omicron now represent 100 percent of cases in L.A. County. Courtesy image

As mask mandates lift, County Health Director declines to describe the virus as “endemic”

Los Angeles is pivoting to a post-surge status as mask mandates are lifted across California this week.

During a Thursday afternoon COVID-19 briefing, LA County Department of Public Health (DPH) Director Barbara Ferrer announced a policy that replaced mask mandates with “strong recommendations” for indoor masking. With the lifting of mandates, Ferrer requested worksites report vaccine clusters of three or more cases to DPH within 14 days to help mitigate the spread of the virus.

“People are free to wear masks even if it’s not required, based on their personal preference, their comfort level, and informed by their personal level of risk or risk to others in their household,” Ferrer said. She later added she hoped mask wearing would remain an accepted practice and admonished the “shaming” of mask wearers.

Ferrer said she shied away from calling COVID-19 “endemic,” comparing it to other endemic diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis.

“I think it may be more helpful to understand that COVID-19 is a deadly virus,” Ferrer said. “It’s still with us. It has ebbs and flows and we need to take advantage of the good times that we’re about to be in, where we really are seeing much less risk across the board for so many — and then be prepared, should there be any variants of concern or we experience another surge.”

LA County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, also speaking at the COVID-19 briefing, emphasized that the virus spread was determined largely by “race, ethnicity and class,” and that the County’s response could not be one-size-fits-all. As it has throughout the pandemic, Ferrer’s data presentation showed a much higher rate of virus cases among Black and Latino residents of LA County.

The decision to lift mask mandates came as LA County moved from the CDC’s “high risk” level into its “low risk” level as community spread of the virus has dropped off in the past couple of weeks.

By Friday, mandates will be lifted across LA County in areas where County rules previously applied: “Under the modified order, indoor masking will be strongly recommended but not required for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals in public settings of businesses, except for those hybrid settings where federal and state regulations continue to require masking,” Ferrer said. That means masks are still required in many scenarios, including on transit and in transit hubs, in all healthcare settings (including nursing homes), and in correctional facilities and jails.

Ferrer also warned of the emergence of new variants. According to the Health Director, Omicron variant cases represented 100 percent of cases sequenced in LA County this week. Among those were a small number of omicron’s BA.2 subvariant, which is believed to be 30 percent more transmissible than the original version of omicron. Though few, instances of BA.2 doubled in the past week in LA County, Ferrer said.

Going forward, the County plans to increase virus sequencing to allow DPH to track new variants, with a goal of sequencing 15 to 25 percent of all positive test specimens collected at County testing sites.

COVID-19 therapeutic treatments were offered to the highest risk patients across the County, one of the latest ways DPH was fighting the spread of the pandemic post-surge — but such therapeutics remain scarce for now.

“Our biggest effort right now as part of preparedness is to work to enroll more providers so that we have a vast network of sites that can both provide information, prescribe and have a sufficient supply of therapeutics,” Ferrer said. “As I noted a couple weeks ago, we still have, you know, a lot of scarcity on the availability of these therapeutics and that translates to only people with very high risk having access, but part of being prepared is understanding that access could change in next month or two.”

Ferrer said DPH was not recommending a second booster dose for those who received a vaccine booster in the fall; however, for those who are concerned, she said it was best to speak to a healthcare provider to determine if a second booster may be appropriate.