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L.A. County COVID-19 cases continue to drop, setting up potential for some school reopenings

Los Angeles County continues to see a downward trend in confirmed coronavirus infections, setting the stage for a possible reopening of some elementary schools.

The county’s coronavirus case rate has dropped below 200 per 100,000 residents over the most recent two-week span, a threshold at which the county can request waivers that would allow some K-6 schools to reopen for in-person classes.

Although the county remains on the state’s COVID-19 watchlist, which monitors for surges in infections and hospitalizations — and will be removed only if cases fall below 100 per 100,000 residents, among other criteria — the number of overall cases in the county continues to decline on a weekly basis. The 14-day average infection rate in L.A. County is currently 197.5 per 100,000 people, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in July that any county on the monitoring list could not open K-12 schools for in-person classes, including all public, private, charter and faith-based schools. But the governor allowed for public school districts as well as charter and private schools to apply through their local health agency for a waiver to reopen school for Grades K-6 only.

L.A. County health officials said earlier this month they would not issue waivers but would reconsider their decision once the numbers fell to an acceptable level.

“Public Health is heartened by case rates falling below 200 and is working to assess the new guidance issued today by the CDPH to determine what additional adjustments may be needed before opening up the waiver process,” the agency said in a statement Tuesday. “Public Health will advise as soon as the school waiver application process is opened and accepting applications.”

Last week, health officials said waiver applications could be distributed to schools — and then sent to state officials for review — once the county met the reduced transmission threshold. Robust safety plans must also be approved, and the county must maintain reduced case counts for 14 days before waivers can be considered.

“Dr. [Barbara] Ferrer and her entire team has been thinking about this closely,” Health and Human Services Director Dr. Mark Ghaly said Tuesday, referring to the L.A. County public health director and school waivers.

“These decisions will only be made when … a school district, as well as parents and children and other local community groups, come together with the commitment from the local health officer to track transmission closely.”

Last week, the Orange County Health Care Agency announced that several schools were approved for in-person classes after the county’s infection rate dropped. The OK came shortly before Orange County was removed from the state’s watchlist. If a county remains off the state list for 14 days, all schools are permitted to reopen.

More counties have been removed from the state’s monitoring list as California continues to see a plateau in COVID-19 cases and a drop in hospitalizations.

The seven-day average for positive COVID-19 test results is currently 5.7%, Ghaly said Tuesday. That is below the country’s overall average, which according to Johns Hopkins University is currently 6.1%.

As numbers have trended downward in recent weeks, eight counties in California have been removed from the list and are awaiting state guidelines on how to begin reopening some of the businesses forced amid a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. The state plans to release new guidance on reopenings this week, Ghaly said.

As massive fires have forced tens of thousands to evacuate in some parts of the state, and as Labor Day approaches, Ghaly stressed the need for residents to avoid congregating with others outside their households and to maintain social distancing practices to keep transmission rates low.

Last week, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said he expected the mortality rate across the nation to drop as cases had declined. In an interview with the Journal of the American Medical Assn., Redfield attributed the progress to business closures and social distancing practices.

“I think I’ve seen pretty strong data that the mitigation steps that we advocated, something as simple as a face mask, social distancing, washing your hands, closing bars and having limited indoor dining at restaurants,” have helped control the pandemic, he said.

Times staff writers Nina Agrawal, Paloma Esquivel, Taryn Luna and Melody Gutierrez contributed to this report.

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