LOS ANGELES — In the face of steadily increasing COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, Los Angeles County will again require people to wear masks in indoor settings beginning Saturday night, regardless of their vaccination status.
"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," County Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis said Thursday.
On Thursday, the county reported 1,537 new infections, the highest number since early March. It was the seventh consecutive day of new case numbers that topped 1,000. Davis said the rate of virus spread in the county has officially risen from moderate to substantial, with infections five times more likely to occur among unvaccinated residents. The current seven-day average rate of daily new cases in the county is now at 7.1 cases per 100,000 residents, up from 4.8 just last week.
As a result, Davis said a revised county Health Officer Order will take effect at 11:59 p.m. Saturday, requiring people to wear masks in indoor settings, regardless of vaccination status.
The county previously only recommended such indoor mask-wearing by vaccinated people in an effort to slow the spread of the virus and protect unvaccinated residents. People who are unvaccinated have always been required to wear masks indoors, although enforcement was left up to individual business owners and was generally on the honor system.
"Wearing a mask when indoors with others reduces the risk of both getting and transmitting the virus," Davis said. "Masking indoors must again become a normal practice by all, regardless of vaccination status so we can stop the trends and level of transmission we are currently seeing."
The masking order will remain in place "until we see improvements" in case transmission, he said.
Asked if the county might consider re-implementing other health restrictions -- such as capacity limits and physical distancing, Davis said, "Everything is on the table if things continue to get worse."
He said that, for now, mask wearing is the "easiest thing" for people to do to help limit spread of the virus.
The mandate means customers will again be required to mask up when entering any indoor public establishment, including retail shops, grocery stores, restaurants and workplaces. Davis said indoor dining will remain open, but customers will have to remain masked while they are not eating or drinking.
The city of Long Beach, which has its own health department separate from the county, announced Thursday night it will align with the county and also require indoor mask wearing for all. In a statement, Long Beach officials said the city has seen a 288% increase in average daily cases over the past two weeks. The city's average daily rate of new cases has risen to 7.5 per 100,000 residents, up from an average of only one per 100,000 residents on June 15.
Pasadena, which also has its own health agency, has not aligned with the county and will continue only recommending indoor masking. But the city is monitoring "COVID case rates in Pasadena and are reviewing options for a mandate."
The 1,537 new cases reported by the county Thursday lifted the cumulative total from throughout the pandemic to 1,262,578. The county reported three more COVID-19 deaths, lifting the overall death toll to 24,566.
The number of people hospitalized in Los Angeles County due to the virus jumped to 462 on Friday, up from 452 on Thursday and 406 on Wednesday, according to state figures. The number of people in intensive care crept back over the 100 mark, reaching 103 on Friday, up from 96 on Thursday. The number of people hospitalized has been climbing steadily for the past three weeks, and is now double the number reported when COVID health restrictions were lifted statewide on June 15.
The rolling-average rate of people testing positive for the virus also continued to climb, reaching 3.75% on Thursday, up from 3.7% Wednesday and well above the 0.3% rate from early June, and 1.2% on June 15.
The increase in infections and hospitalizations is widely blamed on the highly infectious "Delta" variant of the virus. The variant was first detected in India, where widespread infections were reported. The variant is also credited for significant outbreaks in the United Kingdom and other parts of the world.
"Delta" has been the most commonly detected variant in Los Angeles County for several weeks.
"It is clear that the Delta variant is here and spreading rapidly, overwhelmingly in our unvaccinated communities, and we need to take action now before we see uncontrollable spread," County Supervisor Hilda Solis said in a statement.
"That is why today we announced that beginning Sunday, we are taking the necessary step of reinstating a mask requirement indoors for all residents, to slow the spread once more and provide more time for people to get vaccinated. This is only a temporary action, until we can lower our cases and continue getting more people the doses they need."
For people who are unvaccinated, Solis said, "This is the most important reminder yet that this pandemic is not over, and that you remain at serious risk for getting sick, hospitalized, and ultimately, passing away."
Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez also said the new mandate should be reminder to residents that the pandemic isn't over.
"This must be a wake-up call for all of Los Angeles," Martinez said. "Now is the time to do right by your family, friends and your community, follow the county's mask mandate and get the vaccine."
Davis insisted again that COVID vaccines provide strong protection against the virus and the "Delta" variant, but unvaccinated residents are at significantly higher risk.
There are still nearly 4 million county residents who are unvaccinated.
Currently, 69% of county residents age 16 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 61% are fully vaccinated. Among those aged 65 and older, 88% have received at least one dose, and 78% are fully vaccinated.
Black residents continue to have the lowest rate of vaccinations in the county. As of Sunday, 45% of Black residents in the county have received at least one dose, compared to 55% among Latinos, 66% of white residents and 76% of Asian residents.
While conceding that people who are vaccinated can still become infected, they are far less likely to become severely ill or die. As of Tuesday, among the nearly 4.8 million fully vaccinated residents, 4,122 have subsequently tested positive for the virus, a rate of 0.09%. Only 213 fully vaccinated residents have been hospitalized, for a rate of 0.0045%, and 26 have died, a rate of 0.0005%.
In hopes of encouraging more people to get vaccinated, the county is continuing to offer incentives. Beginning Friday and continuing through next Thursday, anyone who gets vaccinated at sites operated by the county, the city of Los Angeles or St. John's Well Child and Family Center will be entered for a chance to win one of seven concert ticket packages, with tickets to see the Harlem Globetrotters, Disney on Ice and the Gold Over America Tour with Simone Biles at Staples Center.