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Los Angeles bemoans mask mandate while experts urge compliance

“If we continue to have large swaths of the population unvaccinated, we are giving this virus a great opportunity to evolve,” Anne Rimoin, an infectious diseases expert, said.
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LOS ANGELES — A collective groan spread through Los Angeles when county public health officials reintroduced an indoor mask mandate regardless of vaccine status just one month after California reopened its economy.

Frustrated by what some view as a step backward in the prolonged coronavirus pandemic, residents quickly pushed back against public health officials despite an uptick in new infections.

Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympian and a gubernatorial candidate looking to oust Gov. Gavin Newsom in the upcoming recall election, called Thursday’s order “Gavin’s shutdown 2.0.”

Newsom did not issue the mask mandate and has not commented on the order.

Kevin Faulconer, who is also looking to unseat Newsom, said in a statement that he would oppose the mandate if he were governor.

“Vaccinated individuals don't need to wear masks, medical experts have made that clear,” he said. “We need to be reopening our state, not reimposing unnecessary restrictions. If Gavin Newsom had any common sense, he'd step up and oppose this, that's what I'll do as governor.”

People, many masked, look for lunch at the Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles on June 15, 2021.
People, many masked, look for lunch at the Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles on June 15, 2021.Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Once a hotbed of both coronavirus cases and anti-mask, anti-vaccine activity, Los Angeles has seen a 261 percent increase in Covid cases over the last two weeks, according to the Los Angeles Times coronavirus tracker.

On June 15, when California officially reopened after more than a year of Covid restrictions, Los Angeles County reported 210 new cases. On July 15, that number jumped to 1,537, according to its public health department.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now considers Los Angeles to have a “substantial level of community transmission.”

The recent uptick is being fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant and a plateau in vaccinations among the county’s 10 million residents, public health officials said Thursday. Nearly 5 million people are fully vaccinated, according to the public health department, but millions more remain unprotected either by choice or, in the case of children, by a lag in federal authorization.

“We’re not where we need to be for the millions at risk of infection here in Los Angeles County, and waiting to do something will be too late given what we’re seeing now,” county Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis said Thursday during a news briefing.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck moment,” he added.

Seven other California counties, including San Francisco and Alameda, issued mask recommendations Friday in response to Los Angeles’ change in policy. Sacramento and Yolo counties issued indoor mask recommendations earlier in the week, even before Los Angeles tightened its restrictions.

There is no statewide mask mandate but California public health officials continue to urge all eligible residents to get the vaccine immediately.

“We’ve spent this entire pandemic chasing the virus,” said Anne Rimoin, professor of epidemiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, Fielding School of Public Health. “We need to get in front of it.”

Rimoin, who is leading studies on vaccine hesitancy among health care workers and first responders in Los Angeles, said people need to be ready for changing guidelines as researchers continue to study Covid.

She also cautioned against pandemic fatigue even among those vaccinated, calling the vaccines “flame retardant, not fireproof.”

“People have to remember that this is still a novel virus and we’re still learning about it,” she said. “As we learn more, we change recommendations and people need to be prepared.”

A study published in June in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that vaccine acceptance was split among Los Angeles health care workers. Fewer than half of the respondents, 47 percent, said they felt that a vaccine would protect them against the coronavirus and just 35 percent trusted the “scientific vetting process” for vaccines.

More than 65 percent of the respondents said they would delay getting the shots, with nearly 50 percent opting to wait to see how the vaccines affected other people before getting vaccinated themselves.

“If we continue to have large swaths of the population unvaccinated, we are giving this virus a great opportunity to evolve,” Rimoin, who co-authored the study, said.

Black residents continue to have the lowest rate of vaccinations, 45 percent, in Los Angeles compared to 55 percent of Latino residents, 66 percent of white residents and 76 percent of Asian residents.

Frustration remains strong in California, which was one of the first states to lock down when the pandemic first started and kept restrictions in place longer than many other states.

Last month, protesters gathered outside a sold-out Foo Fighters concert that unvaccinated people were not allowed to attend. One demonstrator told reporters that “separating humans is not OK.”

“Those of us who have healthy immune systems should be able to enjoy these freedoms just like anybody else,” the protester told KCAL news.

Public health officials throughout the country continue to warn that the pandemic is not over despite fatigue. On Friday, CDC officials sounded the alarm over a "pandemic of the unvaccinated” as cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise. The national seven-day average of new Covid cases has jumped nearly 70 percent over the previous average.