LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Los Angeles County has now entered the federal government's "high'' COVID-19 community activity category, moving the county closer to a possible return of an indoor mask-wearing mandate.
According to Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, the county's average rate of new infections rose to 258 per 100,000 people -- well above the threshold of 200 per 100,000 to qualify the county for the "high'' activity level.
She said the move will not trigger a return to any lockdowns or business closures that were imposed at the height of the pandemic. But she warned that being in the "high'' category means the virus is rampant in the area, and the odds of being exposed are growing.
"We are not asking people to curtail their activities, to avoid activities or to shut down any activities,'' she said. "We're letting people know that the risk is higher with elevated transmission, and because this is having an impact on our healthcare system and our vulnerable residents, it's time to layer in sensible protections.''
Ferrer also said the county would reimpose an indoor mask mandate if the county stays in the "high" category and if the county's virus-related hospitalization numbers reach two thresholds: If the rate of daily hospital admissions tops 10 per 100,000 residents and if the percent of staffed hospital beds occupied by COVID patients.
"Universal indoor masking would only go into effect after we've had two weeks, two consecutive weeks, of remaining at that high level for both thresholds with the hospital metrics," she said.
The county has already surpassed the first threshold, with the rate of daily hospital admissions already at 14.8 per 100,000 residents as of Thursday. The percent of hospital beds occupied by COVID patients was 6.9% as of Thursday, still below the 10% threshold.
Ferrer said the health department's initial projections showed that the hospital bed percentage would reach 10% by Dec. 20, but she said admission numbers appear to have leveled off in the past three days, meaning it may be longer before the figure reaches 10% -- if at all.
"We're not sure that we'll get there,'' she said.
"We're going to be hopeful that in fact we're starting to see perhaps some leveling in the need for people to be treated at hospitals,'' Ferrer told reporters.
Mask-wearing, however, continues to be "strongly recommended'' by the county at indoor public settings. But Ferrer said that even absent a mandate, residents should start wearing them.
"We all need to wear our masks now,'' she said, again citing multiple studies showing their effectiveness in preventing spread. "We've reached a threshold ... where there's just too much transmission, and it's creating a lot of risk.''
Masks are still required indoors at health-care and congregate-care facilities, for anyone exposed to the virus in the past 10 days, and at businesses where they are required by the owner.
Ferrer said Thursday the county reported an average of 3,800 new infections per day over the past seven days, a 40% increase from the previous week, when 2,700 new cases per day were reported.
Daily virus-related hospital admissions jumped by 9% over that week, and daily death reports rose from eight per day to 12.
"With a higher number of cases, we see more transmission,'' Ferrer said. "This means that you're chance of catching COVID during your routine activities -- grocery shopping, eating out, running errands, going to work -- will increase. If you're going to an event such as a concert or a large Christmas party, there is now a higher likelihood that one or more persons at the event is infected. They could unknowingly infect you, and you in turn could unknowingly infect your friends and coworkers or your family.''
On Thursday, the county reported 3,450 new cases, giving the county an overall total from throughout the pandemic of 3,573,950. Health officials have noted that the officially reported case numbers are an undercount of actual virus activity in the county, since many residents take at-home tests without reporting the results, and many others don't bother getting tested at all.
The county also reported 17 more COVID-related deaths on Thursday, lifting the cumulative death toll to 34,279.
According to state figures, there were 1,306 COVID-positive patients in county hospitals as of Thursday, up from 1,293 on Tuesday and up more than 100 from a week ago. Of those patients, 132 were being treated in intensive care units, down from 142 a day earlier.
The seven-day average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was 13% as of Thursday.
City News Service, Inc. contributed to this report.