LA County health director talks new mask guidance, COVID testing amid omicron surge

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- As the omicron variant tears through Southern California, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now updating its guidance, telling Americans that cloth masks provide "the least protection," while surgical masks, N95s and KN95s can offer more.

"They're better because they fit better. They have more layers of protection built into them," said Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.

Ferrer says fit is most important, which is why she wears a KF94 mask.

"It fits really, really tightly over your nose, under your chin," she said.

Added protection is a top concern as the Los Angeles Unified School District struggles with absences. Officials say that nearly a third of students missed school after the winter break. A rapid rise in cases in the Culver City Unified School District prompted school closures next week to give students and staff time to "recoup and recover."

"This isn't that every school is going to shut down at all. This is a situation that in some schools, it may be untenable," Ferrer said.

Across Southern California, about 70% of staffed beds are occupied. San Bernardino County is the highest at 81%. In L.A. County, more than 4,200 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized, with about 25% of them needing ICU care. Ferrer says emergency rooms are being taxed the most.

"Please do not go to an ER if you need a test or if you have a mild illness. We've had lots and lots of hospitals go on what we call 'diversion.' They can't take any more patients," she said.

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Efforts to expand test sites are underway, but Ferrer said not everyone needs to test.

"It's most important to get tested right now if you have symptoms or you know you were a close contact. So those are two groups that really should do their very best to get tested," explained Ferrer.

If you have mild symptoms, health officials say you should check with your own primary doctor or go to a local clinic, especially because emergency rooms are overwhelmed.

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