With the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus continuing to spread statewide, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is recommending that all residents wear masks in public indoor spaces — regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated for COVID-19.

Monday’s announcement is one of the clearest signals yet of just how seriously health officials are taking the strain, and the danger it poses, particularly to those who have yet to be inoculated.

Officials have said the available vaccines appear to offer strong protection. But there’s significant concern that those who have yet to receive all their required shots, or any doses at all, remain vulnerable to the Delta variant — which may be twice as transmissible as the conventional coronavirus strains.

More than 3 in 5 Californians have gotten at least one vaccine dose to date, but fewer than half are fully vaccinated, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. California has one of the nation’s highest vaccination rates, and that has many experts confident the Delta strain won’t cause the kinds of COVID-19 surges seen over the last year.

While not a new mask mandate, L.A. County is urging that, as a precaution, “people wear masks indoors in settings such as grocery or retail stores; theaters and family entertainment centers, and workplaces when you don’t know everyone’s vaccination status.”

“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,” officials wrote in a statement.

Donning face coverings in public indoor places was the norm until only recently, and is still required for the unvaccinated. As part of California’s June 15 reopening, though, the state aligned with guidance from the CDC that people who are fully vaccinated no longer needed to wear masks in most situations.

And despite the latest recommendation, L.A. County health officials noted that “fully vaccinated people appear to be well protected from infections with Delta variants.”

Of the 123 people in L.A. County confirmed to have been infected with the Delta variant thus far, 110 were unvaccinated and three were partially vaccinated. There were two hospitalizations among people in this group.

Cases of the variant have been found in 10 fully vaccinated individuals, none of whom ended up needing hospital care.

“For the very small numbers of people that may end up in fact with a breakthrough vaccination case, they really did not have serious illness,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer noted last week.

At this point, she added, “This is a pandemic of unvaccinated people.”

There have been nearly 1.25 million confirmed coronavirus cases countywide during the course of the pandemic. More than 24,400 Angelenos have died.

Of L.A. County’s confirmed Delta cases, 49 have been among residents of Palmdale and Lancaster. Fourteen cases were in people from a single household.

The variant, which was first identified in India and is also known as B.1.617.2, is now the third-most common in California — making up 14.5% of coronavirus cases analyzed in June, up from 4.7% in May.

“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,” 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.”

At this point there is no widespread scientific consensus as to whether the Delta variant is more likely to cause more serious illness than other strains.

But a recent study found that the full two-dose course of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was 88% effective against symptomatic disease caused by the Delta variant and 96% protective against hospitalization.

Though they readily acknowledge Delta’s infectious potency, many experts don’t expect another COVID-19 surge on the magnitude of those that hammered the state last summer and over the fall and winter — largely because the current level of vaccine coverage is so high.

However, communities with lower vaccination levels do remain exposed to potential outbreaks.

Another concern is that every new infection gives the coronavirus additional chance to mutate, potentially in dangerous ways.

“We know our vaccines work against this variant. However, this variant represents a set of mutations that could lead to future mutations that evade our vaccine,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a recent briefing. “And that’s why it’s more important than ever to get vaccinated now, to stop the chain of infection, the chain of mutations.”

Times staff writers Rong-Gong Lin II and Alex Wigglesworth contributed to this report.





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