With Rose Parade, other gatherings looming, LA County officials urge COVID vigilance

COVID-19 has not thrived as much this winter as it did the past two years, but Los Angeles County public health officials on Thursday, Dec. 29, still urged people to remain vigilant, especially with more holiday gatherings expected this weekend — the Rose Parade chief among them.

“Go ahead and put that mask on when you’re close to other people,” Barbara Ferrer, LA County’s public health director, said Thursday, referring to the Rose Parade on Monday, Jan. 2. “It’s not that big of an inconvenience; it really helps to stop transmission.”

About 800,000 people  — and as many as 1 million — typically line Colorado Boulevard for the Rose Parade, according to Pasadena. And even though the coronavirus doesn’t spread as well outdoors as it does inside, that many people crammed together for hours, in the cold, could still result in COVID-19 transmission.

Add New Year’s Eve parties and holiday travel — including for the Rose Bowl, featuring the University of Utah versus Penn State — to the mix and the potential is there for another bump in the winter surge.

That’s why Ferrer and other health officials continue urging folks to take precautions, such as masking and staying home when sick.

“This is still a very dangerous and serious virus,” Ferrer said during her weekly COVID-19 briefing on Thursday. “Hopefully, we’re able, with the tools at hand, to prevent the health care system from being overly stressed.”

Despite those concerns, case numbers continued declining this week, with an average of 2,300 daily cases reported, Ferrer said; that represented a 13% decrease from the 2,600 average cases per day reported last week.

The metric, however, doesn’t capture all cases, she added, with so many people testing at home or not at all.

There were 3,986 new cases reported Thursday, bringing the county’s all-time total to 3,628,357, including those reported in Pasadena and Long Beach. There were 25 new deaths Thursday and 1,269 people currently in the hospital with COVID-19.

“We are seeing some positive signs and I believe we all can play a role in helping to continue those trends into the new year,” Ferrer said. “I hope we can get through this winter without the devastation of previous surges.”

There was an average of 15 COVID-19-related deaths per day this week, which Ferrer said is a small, but welcome, decrease from the 21 deaths per day reported last week.

Despite the triple threat of COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus — or RSV — this winter, coronavirus-related deaths remain above those from other respiratory viruses, Ferrer said. Since October, 764 LA County residents have died from COVID-19-related illness, compared to an estimated 360 people who have died from the flu.

“While any drop in cases, hospitalizations and deaths is positive news,” Ferrer said, “it’s still important to maintain perspective.”

COVID-19-related hospital admissions, however, are no longer going down like they were in recent weeks, following a peak in early December. Ferrer reported an average of 192 hospitalizations per day this week, a slight increase from the 178 admissions per day a week ago.

Those rates are double what they were mid-November, she added, and are much higher than they were during the peak of the summer surge.

Hospital admission figures had fallen earlier this month, enough for the county to move out of the “high” transmission category and into “medium,” as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The current rate of new cases is 157 per 100,000 people, which keeps the county in the “medium” transmission tier.

But that could change once the CDC updates its COVID-19 data, which it had not yet done at the time of Thursday’s briefing.

“We expect to stay in the medium community transmission level this week,” Ferrer said, “but since we haven’t seen CDC numbers, this could change.”

Nonetheless, she added, it’s possible that a post-holiday rise in cases could move the county back to the “high” level in January. So Ferrer once again urged residents to layer on protections over the next few weeks, such as staying home when sick, washing hands frequently and wearing masks, all of which will also prevent the flu and RSV from spreading.

“The encouraging decline is caused by those taking preventive measures,” Ferrer said. “I hope these measures will prevent a second sharp rise in cases as folks return from winter break travel and gatherings.”

A small increase in COVID-19 cases, though, is expected because of travel and gathering during the winter holidays, Ferrer said — namely, the Rose Parade.

Pasadena public health officials, for their part, also encouraged people to make informed decisions to protect their health and well-being during holiday activities this weekend, though they did say the open-air nature of the Rose Parade reduces risk.

“Open air venues and events such as the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl Game help mitigate concerns of spreading viruses,” Pasadena spokesperson Lisa Derderian said by email Thursday. “We continue to remind everyone to wash hands often, stay home if sick and wear masks if recommended or have a comfort level doing so.”

That city also encouraged common sense protocols among families who will be in close proximity to each other when camping along the parade route, such as not co-mingling or sharing food and drinks.

Ferrer, meanwhile, also urged everyone returning to work and school after winter break to wear masks for the first 10 days back in offices and on campuses to prevent a spike, which happened after the previous two pandemic-era winter breaks.

The public health director sounded an optimistic tone, saying she sees more people wearing masks and is hopeful that folks will continue using them and other precautions to protect each other.

Indoor masking mandates, though, would only come back if there were a threat to the health care system, Ferrer said, not just when transmission hikes.

Still, hospital admission rates are going up again.

And so, Ferrer once again encouraged the 6 million vaccinated folks who have not yet received the bivalent booster to do so; that booster protects against both the original coronavirus strain and the omicron variants. Across the county, 20% of those who are eligible have gotten the bivalent booster, she said; among those at least 65 years old, the rate was 35%.

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She also encouraged people countywide to get the flu vaccine. Flu season is not yet over, Ferrer said, with rates higher than they were during the 2018-19 peak flu season. She said there are expectations of another potential peak in the next few weeks when school returns.

“There are slow (vaccine) increases, but they’re not significant enough given we have a circulation of viruses that would benefit from the extra protection,” Ferrer said. “The stress we saw in late fall I think has been alleviated, but our hospitals are very full and they continue to worry about staffing shortages as they deal with high rates of illness.”

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