Health officials say Los Angeles County is in the midst of a new coronavirus surge — with an average daily case count that’s now nine times higher than it was just four weeks ago.
But this latest upswing comes at a decidedly different point in the pandemic. Even with recent increases in transmission, and the worrisome spread of the highly infectious delta variant of the coronavirus, most Angelenos are now fully vaccinated, and experts say they continue to enjoy strong levels of protection against COVID-19.
However, the risk remains real — and rising — for those who are unvaccinated. And health officials say those who have yet to roll up their sleeves make up the vast bulk of new infections.
COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations still remain significantly below the levels seen during previous surges, though, and there’s hope that the region’s relatively robust vaccine coverage means this latest spike won’t present the same challenges to the healthcare system.
So how bad will this new surge get? Here is what we know.
What do the numbers show?
Over the past week, L.A. County has reported an average of 1,770 new coronavirus cases per day. Four weeks ago, the county was seeing only about 190 new daily cases, according to data compiled by the Los Angeles Times.
On Wednesday alone, the county recorded more than 2,000 new infections — the highest figure since early March.
Officials have expressed growing alarm over the spread. The countywide test positivity rate now stands at 5.2%. A month ago, it was only 0.7%.
Hospitalizations, too, have increased dramatically. On Tuesday, 645 coronavirus-positive patients were in the hospital countywide — nearly triple the number seen a month ago.
Across the county and state, officials say most new infections are being confirmed in those who are not fully vaccinated for COVID-19. Over the week of July 7-14, the average case rate among unvaccinated Californians was 13 per 100,000, according to the state Department of Public Health. The comparable figure among those who had been vaccinated was 2 per 100,000.
Despite the increases, L.A. County has yet to come close to the harrowing heights seen during the winter surge, when an average of about 15,000 new cases were being reported every day and more than 8,000 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized.
Are we seeing more deaths?
Daily COVID-19 death totals remain relatively low, at an average of about four in L.A. County and 23 statewide, Times data show.
And officials are optimistic that the usual cadence of the coronavirus — with increases in cases triggering resulting rises in hospitalizations and, ultimately, fatalities — may be interrupted, given how many people have gotten their shots.
Roughly 53% of L.A. County residents are fully vaccinated. But many of the most vulnerable populations, such as senior citizens, have been inoculated at even higher rates.
“Because of the more infectious delta variant and the intermingling of unmasked individuals where vaccination status is unknown, unfortunately, we are seeing a surge in cases in L.A. County that looks somewhat similar to last summer,” Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said. “An important difference this summer is that, with millions of people vaccinated, we are hopeful we will avoid similar increases in deaths.”
What about masking?
Starting last weekend, L.A. County reinstituted a requirement for everyone to wear masks in indoor public settings.
While no other counties have yet to do likewise, one-third of those in California are now urging even fully vaccinated people to wear masks indoors.
Officials hope that masking up in those areas will slow the spread — but it will take weeks to know for sure. Should those measures prove insufficient, it’s possible more restrictions could become necessary.
What about other areas?
L.A. County is far from the only corner of California that is contending with COVID-19’s latest punch.
Over the past week, the state has reported an average of nearly 5,000 new coronavirus cases a day, five times higher than four weeks ago, according to data compiled by The Times.
In late June, the state was recording about 6,000 new cases a week, according to a Times analysis. At the peak of the pandemic, the state was recording more than 300,000 new coronavirus cases over a seven-day period.
How bad could it get?
No one is sure, in part because the delta variant is a new factor.
But some experts have said they don’t believe we will see a surge on the order of last winter, largely because so many people are already vaccinated.
In an interview last week, Robert Kim-Farley, medical epidemiologist and infectious diseases expert at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, said he’s not worried about the pandemic approaching the same level of devastation seen half a year ago, but is “concerned about the trajectory.”
He said: “Hopefully, this will be the wakeup call for those who are still vaccine hesitant to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated.”
Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious diseases expert at the University of California, San Francisco, said it’s unlikely officials would order businesses to reduce capacity or shut down.
“I think the economy needs to go on — and there are enough people vaccinated,” Chin-Hong said last week.
There may be regional hot spots in California, but hospitals in other parts of the state will probably be able to lend a hand if one region gets overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, Chin-Hong said.
What do health officials hope will happen?
While measures such as masking may help blunt transmission, the real answer, officials say, is more vaccinations.
The highest-risk Californians — notably the elderly — have been vaccinated at high rates. But the numbers drop off for younger segments of the population, and children under 12 still aren’t eligible to be vaccinated.
L.A. County Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly said Tuesday that “the individual consequences of a choice not to get vaccinated can be dire for that person and his or her family and friends.”
“I think sometimes the mentality is that people think, ‘Well, I’m not going to get that sick. I’m going to be OK. I’m not going to die from COVID; I’m young; I’m healthy,'” she said. “And I can tell you, hopefully that’s the case, but that’s not necessarily the case.”
While some areas have contemplated requiring vaccines among public employees, Dr. Muntu Davis, L.A. County’s health officer, said last week that “we do recognize that not everyone is going to get vaccinated, and we accept that. It is a personal decision at this time.”
But, he added, “If you make a decision to not get vaccinated, make sure you’re doing everything you can to reduce your risk, especially at this moment.”
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