County emerging from most restrictive tier

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Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — With COVID-19 transmission slowing, Los Angeles County moved to the brink of emerging from the most restrictive tier of the state’s business-reopening guidelines, meaning indoor dining and movie theaters could potentially be cleared to reopen by late March.

Figures released by the state March 2 put the county’s adjusted average daily rate of new COVID-19 infections at 7.2 per 100,000 residents. If that number falls to 7 per 100,000 residents and stays at that level for two weeks, the county will be able to move out of the restrictive “purple” tier of the state’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy,” and into the “red” tier.

Moving to the “red” tier would authorize the county to loosen restrictions on businesses — increasing capacity at indoor retailers to 50%, re-starting indoor restaurant dining at 25% of capacity, and reopening movie theaters, also at 25% capacity. Museums and aquariums could be permitted to operate at 25% capacity, and fitness centers could resume indoor activities at 10% of capacity.

The state updates tier assignments for all 58 counties every Tuesday.

To advance to a less-restrictive tier of the state’s blueprint, a county must meet all three metrics required by the state for at least two weeks.

To advance to the “red” tier, the county needs a new daily case rate of between 4 and 7 per 100,000 residents, along with an average testing positivity rate of 5% to 8% and a “health equity quartile” — a measurement of a county’s efforts to control the virus in disproportionately impacted communities — of 5.3% to 8%.

Los Angeles County’s testing positivity rate is 3.5% and the equity quartile is 5.1%, both good enough to actually qualify the county for the even less-restrictive “orange” tier of the four-level state blueprint. To advance to that tier, the county’s new case rate would have to drop to between 1 and 3.9 per 100,000 residents.

The county has been on the verge of exiting the “purple” tier before, meeting all the required metrics last fall. But the county was unable to maintain the metrics for the required two-week period, as case rates began to rise and eventually devolved to the winter surge.

Even if the county does move up to the “red” tier, it would still be up to county health officials to decide whether to actually loosen the business restrictions. Counties are permitted to impose more stringent restrictions than the state.

L.A. County is very close to meeting the metric thresholds for the less restrictive red tier in the state’s Blueprint for a Safety Economy, which will provide our county with more opportunities to reopen for additional activities,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement. “Since there is still widespread transmission occurring in our county, we are hoping we do not see increases in the number of daily cases in the upcoming weeks that will pause our recovery journey and cause more hospitalizations.

With an increase in the circulation of variants, we need to ask our residents, workers, and businesses to continue following the safety measures and implement health officer order directives, including wearing a mask and physically distancing from others not in your household to prevent spread,” she said.

The county’s state-adjusted rate of new cases has been rapidly falling in recent weeks, falling from about 28 per 100,000 residents three weeks ago, then dropping to 20, then to 12.3 last week.

Ferrer highlighted the improving numbers March 1, while still urging residents to keep wearing masks, avoid gatherings and practice good hygiene to avoid a reversal of the trend.

We are moving in the right direction, a direction that will hopefully lead to us moving forward on our recovery journey, where more of our young people can go back to school for on-site learning,” Ferrer said.

Ferrer said the county’s average number of daily new COVID cases has fallen below 1,000, marking a return to “the levels we saw before the [winter] surge. These declines are real and we’re grateful for the choices made and the work done by everyone — individuals and businesses — that is making this possible.”

She said the daily average testing-positivity rate over the past seven days has dropped to about 3%.

That’s actually the lowest its ever been since we’ve been offering testing in the community,” Ferrer said. “So yes, testing is down, but community transmission is also down as well, and that also drives a reduced demand for testing — less people have symptoms, less people feel sick, less people feel like they’ve had an exposure.”

She noted that at the beginning of January, the testing-positivity average was about 20%.

As a result of lower demand, COVID testing is now being offered without appointments at all county- and Los Angeles city-operated testing sites, although people can still make appointments if they wish.

Ferrer also noted dramatic drops in cases and deaths among health care workers — who were the first people in the county eligible to receive the COVID vaccine. She said that during the week of Nov. 29, more than 1,800 cases were reported among health care workers, but during the week of Feb. 14, only 69 cases were reported.

The number of deaths among health care workers fell from 21 the week of Jan. 3 to two last week.

Health care workers also experienced a surge in cases in late fall through the winter,” Ferrer said. “Now, as cases overall have declined, and as so many of our health-care workers are fully vaccinated, cases have dropped to the lowest they have ever been since the beginning of the pandemic.

We’re really relieved to see this, not only because our health-care workers, who have been [on the] front lines from day one of this pandemic are seeing the decreases, but also because this graph is one of the first visible signs of the power of the vaccine to decrease our cases.”

Ferrer expressed optimism about a single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine now being approved for emergency use, joining the two-dose Moderna and Pfizer vaccines already being administered.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be distributed at many of the county’s vaccination sites, but while it may become a preferred option because it only requires one dose, people will not be able to choose what medication they receive.

All three of the vaccines are extraordinarily powerful and in clinical trials they were all 100% effective preventing hospitalizations and deaths,” Ferrer said. “Please know when you come to a site, it will be very important to just accept the vaccine that’s being provided, as all of the vaccines that we have and that we’re able to offer have protected people from serious illness that requires hospitalization and from death.”

With more groups of workers becoming eligible for vaccines, Ferrer again urged people not to make vaccination appointments if they are not in an eligible group. She said health officials “constantly get reports” about people gaming the state’s MyTurn computer system to make appointments regardless of their eligibility.

If you were able to make an appointment but you’re not in one of the eligible groups, please cancel your appointment,” she said. “Don’t take away an appointment from an eligible worker and please don’t come to the vaccination site, because you will need to be turned away.”

The county reported another 91 COVID-19 deaths, increasing the countywide death toll since the start of the pandemic to 21,569.