October 25, 2021


Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

L.A. COVID cases accelerate amid Delta variant transmission

Coronavirus infections in Los Angeles County accelerated amid an alarming new surge that has seen cases and hospitalizations reach levels not seen in months.

County health officials reported 2,767 additional cases Thursday, the second straight day with more than 2,000 newly confirmed infections.

Case counts haven’t been this high since late February.

“We are continuing to see a very rapid rise in transmission countywide,” Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have also swelled as of late. On Wednesday, 655 coronavirus-positive patients were hospitalized countywide — nearly triple the number seen a month ago.

Some of the blame for the increase in cases, officials said, can be laid at the feet of the highly contagious Delta variant, which is believed to be twice as transmissible as other strains.

“When you have a more infectious variant that’s circulating and you see what we see now, lots of community transmission, you can expect exactly what we’re seeing: lots more people getting infected, including more people who are fully vaccinated,” Ferrer said.

Ferrer noted that hospitalizations are not yet swelling as steeply as during earlier surges.

“It’s too early to say with 100% certainty whether the small uptick we’re seeing in hospitalizations is the beginning of a small wave of hospitalizations or the start of a more devastating surge,” she said during a briefing. “We are hopeful, however, that with so many of our highest risk residents fully vaccinated, we will not see the same rate of increase in hospitalizations that we saw last year.”

However, the spread of the coronavirus has increased to such a point that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now considers the county to have “high” community transmission — the worst classification on the agency’s four-tier scale.

Other California counties in that category include Contra Costa, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Lake, Sutter, Yuba and Plumas.

Even with the recent rises, L.A. remains in far better shape than during the fall-and-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 at times.

And daily COVID-19 death totals still remain relatively low, at an average of about 4 in L.A. County and 22 statewide, according to data compiled by The Times.

About 53% of L.A. County residents are fully vaccinated.

Even with that context, officials say the recent trajectory of cases is simultaneously familiar and unwelcome — resembling the slope seen during last summer’s spike.

County officials have already intervened to try and break the chain of transmission by reinstituting a requirement for everyone to wear masks in indoor public settings.

However, it will take weeks to assess whether that effort has the desired effect, or whether more aggressive restrictions are necessary.

The surest way to keep that from happening, officials say, is for as many people to get vaccinated as quickly as possible.

Though officials have long maintained that all of the COVID-19 vaccines available in the United States protect against coronavirus infection, and are particularly effective at staving off serious illness, the new uptick in cases nationwide — as well as circulation of the highly contagious Delta variant — has sparked fresh fears about the potential for even fully inoculated individuals to become sick.

Such “breakthrough” cases are rare, but not unpredicted, experts say.

“Infections after vaccination are expected. No vaccine is 100% effective,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious-diseases expert. “However, even if a vaccine does not completely protect against infection, it usually, if it’s successful, protects against serious disease.”

Out of all the cases confirmed countywide in June, Ferrer said 20% occurred in residents who were fully vaccinated.

That’s not necessarily surprising, she said, as more and more residents have rolled up their sleeves.

At the beginning of June, about 44% of residents were fully vaccinated, Times data show, and that proportion rose above 50% by the end of the month.

In other words, even though half of the county was not fully vaccinated in June, this portion of the county’s residents comprised four out of every five newly diagnosed coronavirus cases.

Ferrer also noted that, among fully vaccinated infectees, “the vast majority of those folks only experienced either no illness or very mild illness.”

Fauci cited data showing the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were 95% and 94% effective, respectively, versus symptomatic COVID-19. And in the United States, the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been 72% effective against clinically recognizable disease.

“So even though we are seeing infections after vaccination … the effectiveness against severe disease is still substantial,” Fauci said.

Along with the greater potential for adverse health outcomes, officials say it’s important to note that those who are uninoculated are also at far higher of infection.

Over the week of July 7 to 14, the average case rate among unvaccinated Californians was 13 per 100,000, according to the state Department of Public Health. Among those who had been vaccinated, the comparable figure was 2 per 100,000.

Ferrer said the infection rate in L.A. County in June was five times higher for not fully vaccinated residents than for those who are completely inoculated.

“While our numbers have been going up, they would be much higher if we didn’t have as many people fully vaccinated,” she said.

Though L.A. County’s indoor mask mandate remains the most expansive in the state, about 60% of Californians now live in a county that either advises or instructs universal face coverings in places like grocery stores, retail outlets, movie theaters and at restaurants when not eating or drinking.

Over the past week, California 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, a Times’ analysis shows. At the peak of the pandemic, the state was recording more than 300,000 new coronavirus cases over a seven-day period.

Despite how cases have climbed throughout California and the nation, neither state nor federal health authorities have walked back their guidance that fully vaccinated residents can go without face coverings nearly everywhere, though unvaccinated people must still mask up in public indoor spaces.

“We don’t have to have masking if we all got vaccinated,” Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters earlier this week.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Thursday that the agency’s recommendations haven’t changed — though she noted that “we’ve always said that communities and individuals need to make the decisions that are right for them based on what’s going on in their local areas.”

“If you’re in an area that has a high case rate and low rates of vaccination, or if Delta cases are rising, you should certainly be wearing a mask if you are unvaccinated,” she said during a briefing. “If you are vaccinated, you get exceptional protection from the vaccines, but you have the opportunity to make the personal choice to add extra layers of protection, if you so choose.”