LA County COVID-19 cases falling, but Public Health concerned about undercount

Los Angeles County ‘s number of new COVID-19 cases were falling this week, but the region’s average death rate is up, the county’s top public health officials said Thursday, Jan. 12, while advising county residents to remain cautious against the disease as students return to the classroom following winter break.

County cases are decreasing with a rate of 127 new cases for 100,000 people, but the average death rate of 23 people per day is up from 15 reported in the last week of December, said Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer in her weekly briefing.

But even with falling cases this week, Ferrer voiced caution as life ramps up after the holidays. She noted that the official daily numbers are vastly underestimating the actual amount of virus activity.

Schools were a particular focus on Thursday.

“As schools returned this week, we could see a repeat of this pattern, which does bring a fair amount of disruption to schools, learning plans and families, ” Ferrer told reporters, noting that while this winter’s surge is not as bad as previous winter surges, staying vigilant about the disease will keep it that way. “Public Health asks that students and staff test this week as they’re returning and wear well fitting, high-quality mask for 10 days after returning to the classroom and school. Taking consistent action early could help change the pattern that we saw last fall.”

Toward this end, the Public Health Department distributed 2.4 million at-home test kits to the pre-k through-12 population.

All told, Ferrer said Thursday the county is averaging 162 virus-related hospital admissions per day, down from 192 in late December and from 211 in early January.

The county has remained in the federal government’s medium-transmission tier since Dec. 22.

Hospitalizations and death rates remain highest in elderly patients, high poverty communities as well as within Latinx and Black communities, Ferrer said, presenting numbers showing the disproportionate impact of COVID hospitalizations and deaths on people aged 80 and older. She said the death rate for that age group was five times higher than the rate for people aged 65-79, and the hospitalization rate was three times higher.

When compared to summertime data, deaths are higher even though the number of cases is lower. According to Ferrer, there may be a few reasons for this. The first is that many remain due for a bivalent booster vaccine. The protections offered from the shot wane over time. Second, more research is needed to understand comorbidity of COVID and other respiratory illnesses that circulate during the winter months. Last, the Omicron strains may be leading to more severe symptoms than previous strains.

The most common strain remains Omicron, and the Public Health Department continues weekly screenings to monitor transmission and infection patterns.

The variants of Omicron that L.A. County is battling most are BQ.1, BQ.1.1 and XBB.1.5, officials reported. The previously dominant strain, BA.5 has decreased to 18% of cases. Despite XBB becoming the dominant stain in the US, in L.A. County it is down from 5% to 3%, yet XBB1.5 has increased to 4%.

She again encouraged residents to continue taking precautions such as wearing masks in indoor settings, and ensuring they are up to date on vaccinations and boosters.

The county reported 1,716 new COVID infections on Thursday, giving the county a cumulative total of 3,657,744 from throughout the pandemic. Another 27 virus-related fatalities were reported, raising the overall death toll to 34,944.

The seven-day average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was 7.1% as of Thursday, down from 9.4% a week ago.

According to state figures, there were 1,119 COVID-positive patients in county hospitals as of Thursday, down slightly from 1,128 on Wednesday. Of those patients, 133 were being treated in intensive care units, down from 139 a day earlier.

City News Service contributed to this article.

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