LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Breaking from current guidance allowing residents who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to shed their face masks in most situations, Los Angeles County health officials are "strongly" recommending that everyone wear masks in indoor public places due to rapid spread of a highly contagious virus mutation.
The county Department of Public Health on Monday urged everyone -- regardless of vaccination status -- to wear masks in settings such as grocery or retail stores, theaters, family entertainment centers and workplaces when the vaccination status of other workers isn't known.
"Until we better understand how and to who the `delta variant is spreading, everyone should focus on maximum protection with minimum interruption to routine as all businesses operate without other restrictions like physical distancing and capacity limits," according to a statement from the agency.
The delta variant of COVID-19 originated in India, and is blamed for rampant infections in that country and outbreaks in the United Kingdom and beyond. Federal health authorities are estimating that 20% of all new COVID infections in the country are now due to the delta variant, up from 10% a week ago.
The variant is considered to be far more contagious than previous mutations of the COVID-19 virus, and potentially capable of making patients more severely ill. Health officials have said people who are fully vaccinated are protected against the variant.
"While COVID-19 vaccine provides very effective protection preventing hospitalizations and deaths against the delta variant, the strain is proving to be more transmissible and is expected to become more prevalent," Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement Monday.
"Mask wearing remains an effective tool for reducing transmission, especially indoors where the virus may be easily spread through inhalation of aerosols emitted by an infected person."
Last week, Ferrer said a total of 123 cases of the "delta" variant had been identified in the county, roughly double the number from a week earlier. But since the county conducts very limited sequential testing required to identify the variant, she said the rising number means there are likely many more such infections in the community.
Health officials noted that while fully vaccinated people are well- protected against the variant, people who are only partially vaccinated remain vulnerable. People who are not vaccinated are at high risk due to the ease of transmission of the "delta" variant, health officials said.
When the state of California lifted the vast majority of its COVID-19 restrictions on June 15, mask-wearing rules were eased significantly. Fully vaccinated residents were allowed to stop wearing masks in most situations, with the exception of indoor mega-events attended by 5,000 or more people, and at businesses that continue to require them.
The guidance announced Monday by the county Department of Public Health urging everyone to resume wearing masks in indoor public places is only a recommendation, not an official health order. But health officials say the agency "strongly recommends" that people mask up indoors. The recommendation mirrors a recommendation made over the weekend by the World Health Organization.
The county on Monday reported three new COVID-19 deaths, raising the death toll to 24,480. Another 238 cases were also confirmed, raising the cumulative total to 1,249,560.
According to state figures, there were 229 people hospitalized due to COVID-19 in the county as of Monday, down from 238 on Sunday. There were 55 people in intensive care, up from 52 on Sunday.
As of June 20, more than 10.2 million doses of vaccine had been administered in the county, with 67% of residents age 16 and over having at least one dose, and 58% fully vaccinated.
The county will continue offering incentives for people to get vaccinated. Continuing through Thursday, people age 18 and older who get vaccinated at sites operated by the county, city of Los Angeles or St. John's Well Child and Family Center will be entered for a chance to win one of two season ticket packages to Six Flags, the Los Angeles Zoo, the Natural History Museum and the La Brea Tar Pits, along with ticket packs for the California Science Center.
The contest is open to anyone who comes to one of the participating sites for a first dose of vaccine, or anyone who is obtaining a second dose and brings a first-dose patient with them.
Ferrer stressed the level of protection offered by the COVID vaccines, releasing statistics showing that between Dec. 7 and June 7, 99.6% of all new COVID infections in the county involved people who were not vaccinated. Of the people who were hospitalized due to the virus in that time period, 98.7% were unvaccinated. And among those who died, 99.8% were unvaccinated.