LOS ANGELES (CNS) -- As COVID-19 infection rates fall and hospitalizations decline, some Los Angeles County residents may wonder if they'll soon be able to shed face masks indoors and in other settings, but the county's top public health official said Thursday that virus transmission remains substantial and loosening restrictions too early could prompt a dangerous surge in cases this winter.
Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the latest numbers show the county has seen a roughly 18% drop in the number of average daily new COVID cases and a 14% drop in hospitalizations over the past week. Average daily deaths have finally fallen below 10, reaching about eight per day.
In the early days of the pandemic, between 15% and 30% of people who contracted COVID-19 wound up hospitalized, but that rate is now about 5-6%, reflecting the impact of vaccines, improved outpatient care and more widely available testing, Ferrer said. She said most of the COVID infections now occurring are "relatively mild or moderate, especially for people who are fully vaccinated."
"With these numbers trending downward, I know there are people expressing concern with the continued required masking or recommended additional layers of prevention in public places and places of employment," Ferrer said during an online briefing. "There are a couple of reasons why we're continuing safety requirements in what we consider to be higher-risk settings.
"Transmission is still substantial across the county and most of the country, and this means that it's fairly easy for the virus to spread," she said. "The spread happens primarily among the unvaccinated people but also, as we've been reporting for months now, to a lesser degree among vaccinated people, especially in those crowded places and in poorly ventilated indoor spaces.
"The second reason is we need to do everything possible to prevent a devastating winter surge. We've seen a pattern where COVID numbers increase with cooling weather and more activities moving indoors. Layering protections is a sensible approach, and we focused on layering with safety measures that don't really create significant disruptions to customary operations. After vaccinations, masking offers us the next best tool for reducing spread."
The county continues to mandate mask-wearing in indoor public settings, except when people are actively eating or drinking. Masks are also required at large outdoor events, such as Dodger games or football games.
Ferrer said the restrictions will not be around forever, and if transmission continues declining, the rules can be relaxed. "We've always indicated that these are not forever restrictions," she said. But she said "getting more people vaccinated is the fasted way to reducing transmission."
According to numbers released Thursday, 79% of eligible county residents aged 12 and older have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 71% are fully vaccinated.
Health officials anticipate that Pfizer vaccines will likely be approved for children aged 5 to 11 by early November, and there are about 900,000 children in Los Angeles County in that age range, Ferrer said. She said the county will be prepared to quickly begin administering those doses, with about 96,000 of the smaller, pediatric doses expected to be in hand shortly after they are approved, with thousands more doses arriving in subsequent deliveries.
The county on Thursday reported another 27 COVID-19 deaths, raising the overall death toll from the pandemic to 26,499. Deaths are considered a lagging indicator of the pandemic, meaning the deaths reported on any given day didn't occur in the past 24 hours, but are just being reported and could have actually occurred weeks or even months ago.
Another 1,167 COVID infections were reported Thursday, giving the county a pandemic total of 1,481,814. The average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was a low 0.88%.
Meanwhile, the number of COVID-positive patients in county hospitals fell below the 600 mark, with state figures putting the number at 598. That was down from 613 on Wednesday. Of the hospitalized patients, 184 were in intensive care, up from 177 a day earlier.