Carla K. Johnson and Christopher Weber
LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles county faces a return to a broad indoor mask mandate on July 29 if current trends in hospital admissions continue, county health Director Barbara Ferrer said Thursday.
Ferrer conceded that “for many this will feel like a step backwards,” but requiring masks again is part of a toolkit of “sensitive safety precautions” during a jump in cases that’s reminiscent of the Delta variant-fueled surge last summer.
“We are not closing anything down. We are not asking people not to gather with the people they love,” Ferrer said during a public briefing. “We’re asking you to take a sensitive step, when there’s this much transmission with a highly transmissible variant, to go ahead and put back on a well-fitting high-filtration mask when you’re indoors around others.”
Nationwide, the latest COVID-19 surge is driven by the highly transmissible BA.5 variant, which now accounts for 65% of cases with its cousin BA.4 contributing another 16%. The variants have shown a remarkable ability to get around the protection offered by vaccination.
With the new omicron variants again pushing higher hospitalizations and deaths in recent weeks, states and cities are rethinking their responses and the White House is stepping up efforts to alert the public.
Some experts said the warnings are too little, too late.
“It’s well past the time when the warning could have been put out there,” said Dr. Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, who has called BA.5 “the worst variant yet.”
Global trends for the two mutants have been apparent for weeks, experts said — they quickly out-compete older variants and push cases higher wherever they appear. Yet Americans have tossed off their masks and jumped back into travel and social gatherings.
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And they have largely ignored booster shots, which protect against COVID-19′s worst outcomes. Courts have blocked federal mask and vaccine mandates, tying the hands of US officials.
“We learn a lot from how the virus is acting elsewhere and we should apply the knowledge here,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.
White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha appeared on morning TV on Wednesday urging booster shots and renewed vigilance. Yet Mokdad said federal health officials need to push harder on masks indoors, early detection and prompt antiviral treatment.
“They are not doing all that they can,” Mokdad said.
The administration’s challenge, in the view of the White House, is not their messaging, but people’s willingness to hear it — due to pandemic fatigue and the politicization of the virus response.
For months, the White House has encouraged Americans to make use of free or cheap at-home rapid tests to detect the virus, as well as the free and effective antiviral treatment Paxlovid that protects against serious illness and death. On Tuesday, the White House response team urgently called on all adults 50 and older to get a booster if they haven’t yet this year and discouraged people from waiting for the next generation of shots expected in the fall.
New York City, San Francisco and many other local governments also have stepped up reminders encouraging people to get boosters, wear masks and take other precautions but have refrained from imposing mask mandates lifted following the major spike last winter. During the latest surge, Philadelphia summarized its mask mandate in April but lifted the requirement within a few days.
For most of the pandemic, Los Angeles County has required masks in some indoor spaces, including health care facilities, Metro trains and buses, airports, jails and homeless shelters. The new mandate would expand the requirement to all indoor public spaces, including shared offices, manufacturing facilities, warehouses, retail stores, restaurants and bars, theaters and schools.
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It’s unclear what enforcement might look like. Under past mandates, no individuals were cited for refusing masks and officials favored educating people over issuing citations and fines.
On a typically sunny and warm summer day in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Sharon Fayette ripped off her mask the moment she stepped out of a Lyft ride and groaned when informed another universal mask requirement might be coming. “Oh man, when will it end?” she said.
Fayette said she was exhausted by shifting regulations and dubious another mandate would be followed by most residents. “I just think people are over it, over all the rules,” she said.
Nick Barragan said he learned a harsh lesson about the effectiveness of masks when he went without a face covering at a film industry mixer last month in Los Angeles.
“I thought it would be fine because we were all outdoors,” said Barragan, 35. A few days later he started feeling sick and tested positive.
He’d avoided catching the virus for more than two years because he was religious about masking up.
“The one time I took it off, I caught it!” I have laughed.
While hospitalizations and deaths have remained well below prior spikes nationally, the current trends are troubling. Last month, daily deaths were falling, though they never matched last year’s low, and deaths are now heading up again.