Mask Mandate Returns as Virus Cases Increase

By Oscar Areliz and Zane Hill

Though the increase pales in comparison to last year’s Fourth of July surge, Los Angeles County is experiencing a concerning spike in COVID-19 infections after recording more than 1,000 new cases for a seventh consecutive day on Thursday.

The rapid rise in daily cases, increasing number of cases involving the Delta variant and a slowing vaccination rate prompted the county to reinstate its mandate that all residents, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask indoors in public spaces, just one month after the state celebrated its much-anticipated reopening. The new health order will be effective late Saturday evening.

“Wearing a mask when indoors with others reduces the risk of both getting and transmitting the virus,” County Health Officer Muntu Davis, a physician, said in a virtual conference on Thursday. “Masking indoors must again become a normal practice by all, regardless of vaccination status, so we can stop the trends and level of transmissions we are currently seeing.”

Davis added the masking requirement will remain in place until the number of cases subsides and did not rule out the possibility of re-implementing more health restrictions.

“Everything is on the table if things continue to get worse,” he said.

The county Department of Public Health reported 1,537 new cases on Thursday, and more than 99% of the recent cases have involved unvaccinated individuals. The county averaged 1,189 new cases per day from July 9-15, compared with only 545 from July 1-8. The county did not report on cases on July 4 because of the holiday. Friday’s numbers were not available by the News-Press’ deadline.

Prior to July 9, also a Friday, the number of new cases in one day had not surpassed triple digits since March 11. The county reported 1,107 new cases on July 9 and 1,094 the following day. The 1,000-case streak continued Sunday — even with the weekend lag — with 1,113 cases, and on Monday with 1,059. Tuesday’s total was 1,103, and the number shot up to 1,315 on Wednesday.

The test positivity rate has also increased from .5% one month ago to 3.7%, and the number of outbreaks being investigated by health officials also has risen.

As of Thursday, Glendale has had 20,527 coronavirus cases overall, and 632 people have died from the disease. The city averaged 23 new cases per day from July 8-15 after averaging only seven in the first seven days of the month. Meanwhile, 58.5% of Glendale’s residents 16 and older have had at least one dose of the vaccine.

“Given that slightly under 4 million residents in Los Angeles County are not yet vaccinated and roughly 42% of our community remains unvaccinated, the risk of increased spread remains high,” Fire Chief Silvio Lanzas told the City Council this week.

Lanzas added that the Delta variant has been the most commonly identified variant in positive cases since June. Per county data, there have only been 2,822 recorded positive coronavirus tests among the 4.6 million fully vaccinated county residents — that is, those who are two weeks past their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the single dose of the Johnson & Johnson version.

“The data to date suggests fully vaccinated people are well protected from severe infections with the Delta variant,” Lanzas said.

According to the county, 71.8% of Glendale’s residents age 65 and older have received at least one dose of a vaccine, while 30.2% of its youth ages 12-17 have gotten one dose. In unincorporated La Crescenta-Montrose, the numbers are substantially higher in all categories: 73.4% of residents 16 and older, 90.3% of residents 65 and older and 65.2% of youth ages 12-17.

The county as a whole has administered more than 10.7 million doses of the vaccine, and nearly 69.4% of its residents 16 and older have had at least one dose.

Nevertheless, “We’re not where we need to be for the millions at risk of infection here in Los Angeles County, and waiting to do something would be too late given what we’re seeing now,” Muntu said, referring to the mask mandate.

Dr. Christina Ghaly, county director of health services, told county supervisors in a meeting on Tuesday that every patient admitted with COVID-19 in each of the four county hospitals was unvaccinated, which only adds more stress for health-care workers who have spent countless hours on the front line since March 2020.

According to data compiled by the Los Angeles Times, Adventist Health Glendale had 13 inpatients with COVID-19 as of Friday, while Glendale Memorial Hospital had three. USC Verdugo Hills Hospital had five inpatients, according to a representative of Keck Medicine of USC.

“Luckily for us, we remain in fairly decent shape at our three community hospitals,” Lanzas said this week.

The county reported 406 people hospitalized with COVID-19, and 22% of them were in intensive care units on Thursday.

“Certainly the stress [health-care workers are] experiencing now is not anything close to what it was in the midst of the surge earlier this year, but still the months add on top of one another and I think it’s really challenging to see patients come in so sick,” Ghaly said during an appearance before county supervisors.

“At this point, this is a very preventable illness, a preventable infection, and the health-care workers will continue doing everything they can to support the lives and health of the individuals that come in,” Ghaly added. “But it’s really been a very challenging year and I think made all the more challenging because we see the suffering that these patients and their families are going through and it’s very preventable at this point in time.”

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl didn’t hold back in expressing her disappointment in residents who choose not to be vaccinated, saying she hoped they “understand the impact that they have, not only on their communities and their families, but on other people in their communities who are the health-care workers, who are the people toiling more than 14, 15, 16 hours a day to take care of them when they don’t want to take care of themselves.

“I am sorry to sound a little angry, but it just strikes me as enormously selfish,” Kuehl added. “We can’t rely on herd immunity if the herd won’t get their shots.”

Those reluctant to get vaccinated may feel less inclined to do so after the Food and Drug Administration warned of the possibility that the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine slightly increases the risk of a rare neurological condition called Guillain-Barré syndrome.

The FDA reported there have been 100 preliminary reports of GBS among the 12.5 million people vaccinated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Of those 100 people, 95 required hospitalization and there was one reported death.

“Although the available evidence suggests an association between the [Johnson & Johnson] vaccine and increased risk of GBS, it is insufficient to establish a causal relationship,” the FDA said in a statement. “No similar signal has been identified with the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines.”

Despite the warning, public health officials reiterated that the benefits of vaccinations greatly outweigh the risks, especially with the Delta variant. Among those who are fully vaccinated, only .06% have tested positive for the coronavirus, .004% have been hospitalized and .0004% have died, according to the county.

“With transmission on the rise, the best protection from COVID-19 is to be fully vaccinated,” Davis said on Tuesday. “And even after you have been infected or had COVID-19 and recovered, it is still recommended by the [Centers for Disease Control]. Their studies have shown that vaccinations provide a strong boost in protection in people who have recovered from COVID-19.”

City News Service contributed to this report.