COVID outbreaks hit workplaces, schools across California as summer illnesses worsen

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 3, 2023 - Linda Norman wears a mask to prevent exposure to COVID-19 while attending the West Adams Block Party in the West Adams District in Los Angeles on September 3, 2023. The block party consisted of two stages of musical performances, art installations, local vendors, food trucks and curated educational and sports programming for kids. Arrested Development, D Smoke, Soulection, Medusa, Georgia Ann Muldrow and others performed at the event.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
A woman wears a mask while walking through the West Adams Block Party. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

The summer COVID bump is worsening in California, with infections spreading at schools and workplaces, and hospitalizations ticking up.

While health officials continue to say the numbers are no cause for alarm, the infections are beginning to bring more disruptions to everyday life.

In Los Angeles County, the number of new COVID-19 outbreak investigations at work sites tripled in the last month, reaching 73 for the 30-day period that ended Sept. 1. An outbreak is defined as a number of cases in which there is confirmed viral transmission at a work site and not just a cluster of cases where people were infected elsewhere.

At schools in L.A. County, COVID-19 outbreaks rose 43% for the most recent week data were available to a total of 33, up from 23 the prior week.

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Santa Paula High School in Ventura County canceled a varsity football game scheduled for Friday against La Cañada High School after 15 team members tested positive for the coronavirus and additional students reported symptoms, according to its principal, David Keys. Another three students had tested positive on the cheer team, said Julissa Carrillo, a spokesperson for the school district.

The rate at which reported coronavirus tests are coming back positive is up statewide — to 14%. At the start of summer, just 4% of reported test results were positive. Across California, there were 2,593 new coronavirus-positive hospital admissions for the week ending Aug. 26, up 12% from the prior week.

Among the work sites in L.A. County where there are active COVID-19 outbreak investigations are the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, CBS Studio Center Stage 18, the L.A. City Department of Public Works' Bureau of Street Services, the Westchester-Loyola Village Branch Library, the eighth floor of the L.A. County Department of Public Works headquarters, the Sierra Madre Playhouse and United Talent Agency in Beverly Hills.

Officials noted that L.A. County is not seeing the kind of exponential growth in COVID-19 reported in prior waves. Hospitalizations, while rising, remain at lower levels than at this time last year. So far in L.A. County, there hasn't been a significant increase in daily COVID-19 deaths.

L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer went as far as to say she doesn't consider the current rise in COVID-19 a "wave," but more like a "bump."

"In our waves, we've seen what I would call almost exponential growth, like things were doubling at a quicker pace," Ferrer told The Times in an interview Thursday. "We don't really have that. ... I would wait to call something a wave until I saw something that shows there was a steeper rate of increase."

Read more: Here’s where L.A. County is seeing COVID outbreaks this summer

In fact, by other measures, some indicators are showing milder increases.

For the week that ended Aug. 26, the most recent data available, coronavirus levels in L.A. County wastewater were at 29% of last winter's peak — not much higher than the prior week.

Officially reported coronavirus cases are flat compared to the previous week. There was an average of 569 reported cases a day for the week that ended Saturday, flat with the prior week's tally of 571.

The proportion of emergency room encounters designated as COVID-related is also stable. For the week that ended Sunday, 5% of emergency department encounters countywide were related to the coronavirus, about the same as the prior week's 5.1%.

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The number of coronavirus-infected people in hospitals in L.A. County was 559 every day, on average, for the week that ended Saturday. That's a 7% increase from the prior week, but a gentler climb than the prior week-over-week increase of 22%.

COVID-19 deaths remain stable and low. The county was averaging about 1.3 COVID-19 deaths a day for the week that ended Monday, up from about 1 a day the prior week.

And even the increase in outbreaks at schools isn't a big surprise. There are more outbreaks, but "we have more schools in session," Ferrer said. "This looks pretty similar to what we saw last August."

"I am not alarmed by these numbers," Ferrer said. But, she said, it would be wise for people to take sensible precautions, like staying home when sick, washing hands often, and for higher-risk people, putting masks back on in indoor crowded places. Ferrer also suggested that people wear masks at healthcare facilities and on public transit.

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With COVID-19 now far less threatening than earlier in the pandemic — thanks to effective vaccines and therapeutic drugs such as Paxlovid, as well as years of natural immunity — health officials have signaled that absent some kind of unforeseen catastrophe, the era of government-imposed universal mask mandates is long past. California has now gone more than 18 months since the last universal mask mandate ended.

"I'm really not focused on masks coming back as a mandate," Ferrer said. Face coverings are an important tool, but the pandemic has moved on to a new phase where mask requirements make sense only in limited situations, such as at a work site for a limited time to quell an active outbreak, Ferrer said.

Government-imposed COVID-19 vaccination requirements also have ended, even for healthcare workers. In alignment with federal officials ending a vaccine requirement for healthcare employees, L.A. County last month also ended its own local requirement.

The increase in coronavirus transmission levels comes just days before federal officials are set to consider authorizing an updated COVID-19 vaccination, designed against a subvariant that was dominant earlier this year and is closely related to current dominant sublineages.

Read more: With coronavirus on the upswing in California, new vaccine coming sooner than expected

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to act in the coming days to authorize the new shots. Then, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could act as early as Tuesday to offer recommendations on who should get the shot.

New vaccines could be available as early as next Friday in L.A. County, Ferrer said.

Experts have urged people to be up-to-date on their vaccines, especially older people. Those who are still being hospitalized for COVID-19 are generally older people who are not current with vaccinations.

The increase in coronavirus infections is likely related to new, even more immune-evasive Omicron subvariants, as well as weakened immunity to the coronavirus, given that people either got their last COVID-19 booster shot a year ago or haven't gotten a refresher vaccination for even longer.

This summer has been the first since the pandemic began that, for many people, felt like the COVID-19 emergency was over. The Transportation Security Administration said the summer was the busiest travel season on record.

Read more: Despite uptick in infections, Huntington Beach moves to ban COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates

As outbreaks continue to be problematic, L.A. County work sites are still required to report clusters of three or more possibly connected coronavirus cases over a seven-day period to the Department of Public Health within 24 hours of becoming aware of the cluster. If officials determine a workplace outbreak has occurred, officials will send a case manager to find a strategy to end the outbreak.

In Ventura County, schools and many businesses are no longer required to report suspected outbreaks to the local public health department, but officials encourage them to do so.

Other illnesses are also circulating: In Ventura County, another football game was canceled last week by Nordhoff High School in Ojai after sicknesses left the team short on players. Although a few people tested positive for COVID-19, most seemed to have “the flu or whatever bug is going around,” Nordhoff head football coach Dillon Lowen said.

“More than half the team” were out, Lowen said. That prevented them from being able to get enough time to practice and prepare for the game.

“It wasn't a COVID issue. It was more of a player-safety issue. … Even if we had zero COVID cases, we still would have canceled the game, just because so many people were sick,” he said.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.