How worried should you be about the recent rise in coronavirus cases? Here’s what to know

More than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, plenty of questions still linger about the virus’s spread and what it means for Southern California residents.

That point was emphasized on Thursday, July 15, when Los Angeles County health officials announced that people will once more be required to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. The first full day the reimposed mandate will be in effect is Sunday, July 18. Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties — and Pasadena, which has its own health department — has not yet followed suit, still only recommending face coverings indoors.

So where do things stand for people who have been vaccinated against the virus — and for people who haven’t? Here’s what we know now.

How bad is the current rise in cases?

Los Angeles County’s seven-day daily average case rate has doubled in the past week alone, and the daily positive testing rate has more than tripled over the last month. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has four categories for tracking coronavirus transmission rates, and the county has quickly moved from the lowest of those categories to the second-highest.

Coronavirus rates elsewhere, including Orange and San Bernardino counties, but not nearly as bad as in LA.

Case rates, though, remain far lower than they were during the surges over the winter and last summer.

LA County Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis said this week that the recent numbers are cause for concern — but he declined to say whether the rise could be the beginning of yet another surge.

“I don’t know what you would define a surge as,” Davis said, but “the increases have been substantial over a short period.”

Other medical professionals, though, cautioned that a surge among the unvaccinated could overwhelm the health care system simply because of the county’s size.

And in Orange County, Supervisor Katrina Foley called on that area’s health department to reinstate daily coronavirus reporting, stressing the worrying rise in cases.

Are hospitalizations and deaths also rising?

Coronavirus hospitalizations have been increasing recently, but not as quickly as cases.

Multiple health officials, though, have said it’s unclear how much longer that will remain the case. In past surges, spikes in hospitalizations have lagged behind surges in cases, because it often takes some time for the illness to become severe enough to warrant a hospital visit. Increases in deaths have also lagged behind increases in hospitalizations, for the same reason.

So while there hasn’t been a significant increase in coronavirus-related deaths, if the trend lines continue to mirror previous surges, there could be a rise in people dying.

Why are cases rising and should I be worried?

The delta variant of the coronavirus — which is much more easily transmissible than the strain that dominated for most of the pandemic — now makes up a majority of new cases, according to health officials.

And the virus is spreading mostly entirely among the unvaccinated, during a time when most coronavirus restrictions have gone away.

In Orange County, for example, 90% of new positive cases and 95% of hospitalizations are from those who are unvaccinated, according to Dr. Clayton Chau, the director of the OC Health Care Agency.

The vast majority of positive cases in LA County are also among the unvaccinated.

While about 69% of LA County residents ages 16 and up had been vaccinated with at least one does as of Friday, July 16, millions of county residents remain unvaccinated. Even in Orange County, though it’s not nearly as populated, there are still more than 1 million who aren’t fully vaccinated.

So, to answer the latter question, if you’re vaccinated you don’t have to worry too much for now. The vaccines largely protect against the coronavirus and, even if you do get it, the change you will develop serious symptoms is extremely rare.

That being said, there is some evidence that the vaccines’ efficacy decreases over time and may, at some point, require a booster shot. And, health experts have said, the more a virus spreads, the more likely it will mutate into a variant that can get past the vaccines.

Which is why, experts say, it’s important to limit the spread.

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Could there be another lockdown?

It’s possible — though that’s a long way off. And the situation would have to worsen to the point of desperation.

The current numbers, for one, do not yet appear to necessitate a lockdown. And, for another, there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for another shutdown. LA County, after all, is largely alone in the state in reinstituting the mask mandate.

And Davis said the Public Health Department hopes taking that small step could prevent the need for a stronger response later on.

“Everything is on the table if things continue to get worse,” he said, “which is why we want to take action now.”

How can I protect myself?

Health officials have continued to emphasize that vaccination is the best protection against the virus — both for yourself and to prevent you from spreading it to other people.

While the new mask mandate in LA County will likely slow the spread of the virus among both the vaccinated and unvaccinated populations, Davis said, the biggest area of concern right now is the group of people who have not been inoculated.

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