L.A. County mask rules under new scrutiny after Newsom, Garcetti seen maskless at game

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is defending its mask-wearing order, which is being criticized after Gov. Gavin Newsom and the mayors of L.A. and San Francisco were photographed maskless at Sunday’s NFL playoff game at SoFi Stadium.

The criticism comes as coronavirus case rates are falling but L.A. County recorded more than 1,300 COVID-19 deaths in January — the highest monthly tally since last March, according to a Times analysis.

L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger in a statement Monday said she believes people should be allowed to choose whether to wear a mask. She referred to the observation that many fans at the Rams’ NFC championship game against the San Francisco 49ers in Inglewood on Sunday were not masked, despite L.A. County’s order that people at large outdoor events be masked.

“I strongly believe individuals should be allowed to make an informed choice about whether to mask up or not. I hope state and local health leaders take this into consideration and reevaluate indoor and school masking mandates now,” Barger said in her statement.

“Let’s do away with blanket COVID-19 masking policies — they don’t make a difference when they’re not consistently followed or enforced,” Barger added. “We need to trust the public to make the best personal decisions for themselves based on their unique risks and circumstances.”

L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the fact that many fans were not wearing a mask at Sunday’s game was not a good reason to end the local mask order, which requires face coverings to be worn in indoor public settings and outdoor “mega-events” involving 5,000 or more people.

“Noncompliance with a critical safety measure is not a good reason for ending the requirement. That would be like eliminating speed limits because so many drivers ignore them and feel that they can assess for themselves the safe speed for their travel,” Ferrer said in a statement.

“At some point soon, transmission will be significantly lower, and we will not need to wear our masks everywhere; unfortunately, we aren’t there yet. And in order to get there as quickly as possible, we should all make our best efforts to layer in sensible protections that keep us and those around us safe,” Ferrer said.

Besides L.A. County‘s mask order, California requires mask wearing in indoor public spaces under an order that is set to expire Feb. 15. County rules cannot be less restrictive than the state’s.

Federal, state and many local health officials in California have defended mask orders as essential at a time of exceptionally high coronavirus case rates and crowded conditions in hospitals.

L.A. County is now averaging about 20,000 new coronavirus cases a day, according to a Times analysis of state data made available Monday. While that’s less than half of the Omicron variant peak of 44,000 new cases a day, it’s still above the peak of last winter’s devastating surge, which topped out at 16,000 new cases a day.

The latest case numbers pencil out to about 1,400 cases a week for every 100,000 residents. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that masks be worn in indoor public settings when the rate is 50 or more cases a week for every 100,000 residents.

L.A. County last fell below that threshold last spring, but that ended when the highly contagious Delta variant began rapidly spreading over the summer.

Reaching that goal is one of several criteria the county Department of Public Health has outlined to end the local mask order for indoor public settings. The other criteria include getting 80% of residents age 12 and older fully vaccinated; getting the number of coronavirus-positive patients in hospitals at fewer than 600 for three straight weeks; and no reports of significantly circulating variants of concern that could threaten vaccine efficacy.

About 78% of L.A. County’s residents age 12 and up are fully vaccinated.

Vaccination rates are far lower in younger children in L.A. County, prompting officials to issue an advisory Friday to local healthcare providers urging them to contact parents and strongly recommend children get vaccinated. In L.A. County, only 32% of children in this age group have received at least one shot; by contrast, in San Francisco, 73% of them have gotten one.

Health officials are concerned that low vaccination rates are connected with troubling rises in hospitalization rates among children. Coronavirus-positive hospitalization rates of children in this age group have risen from 2 per week in mid-November to 23 per week in mid-January.

Authorities are still warning that hospitals throughout Southern California remain under strain, even as the number of coronavirus-positive patients has begun to decline. As of Sunday, there were 3,720 coronavirus-positive patients in L.A. County’s hospitals, a drop of 23% from the apparent Omicron peak of 4,814 on Jan. 19.

The number of coronavirus-positive intensive care unit patients — 749 — is down by only slightly from its Omicron peak of 794, recorded on Jan. 23.

Meanwhile, L.A. County’s COVID-19 death rate remains at a level not seen in more than 10 months. According to a Times analysis of state data, L.A. County has been averaging 64 COVID-19 deaths a day, more than quadruple the rate heading into Christmas, when the county was averaging 15 deaths a day.

Some public health experts cautioned against eliminating mask requirements while case rates remain high.

“With infections still high, indoor mask mandates make sense,” tweeted Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “During big surges, as hospitals overflow, individual action isn’t enough. Collective action is needed, which often means mandates.”

But once coronavirus case rates fall further — and the Omicron storm becomes a drizzle — mandates will become less necessary, Jha added.

The “key is to communicate: During periods of low infections, restrictions come off. During potential future surges, public health measures may need to temporarily return,” Jha wrote.

John Barry, author of “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” warned in an op-ed this week about abandoning public health measures prematurely.

Many histories say the great 1918 flu pandemic ended in the summer of 1919, but it actually lasted through 1920, with a final, fourth wave even deadlier in some U.S. cities than the devastating surge of the fall of 1918, Barry said. But virtually no U.S. city responded with control measures in the pandemic’s third and final year because officials were weary of the fight.

“Newspapers were filled with frightening news about the virus, but no one cared. People at the time ignored this fourth wave; so did historians,” Barry wrote. “The virus mutated into ordinary seasonal influenza in 1921, but the world had moved on well before. We should not repeat that mistake.”

Times staff writer Hayley Smith contributed to this report.

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