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Los Angeles, Orange and San Francisco counties shatter COVID-19 records as ICU space shrinks

Healthcare workers in full protective gear around a patient lying on their back on a hospital bed
Record numbers of patients with COVID-19 were hospitalized in Los Angeles and Orange counties over the weekend.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Record numbers of patients with COVID-19 were hospitalized this weekend in Los Angeles and Orange counties, and San Francisco hit a high for new coronavirus cases, as space in intensive care units across the state shrunk to dangerous lows.

The figures paint a dire picture just two weeks before Christmas, when holiday travel could ramp up despite warnings from public health officials.

There were 1,236 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Orange County on Sunday and 4,203 in Los Angeles on Saturday, according to the latest available numbers — both record highs. San Francisco, which had been a front-runner in coronavirus testing, reported a record of 323 new cases Saturday.

Intensive care units in Southern California had only 4.2% of their capacity available Sunday, falling below the statewide level of 7.4%, according to the California Department of Public Health. Northern California had the highest capacity, with 29%, while the San Joaquin Valley had just 1.5%.

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Mortality rates could surge if ICUs can no longer accommodate patients. The scarcity is less about physical space and more about a shortage of specially trained nurses to provide 24-hour care. The state’s stay-at-home order went into effect when the ICU capacity in several regions dipped below 15%.

The sobering numbers come as the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine by Pfizer and BioNTech were shipped out of a Michigan factory Sunday.

A scientific review team representing California, Oregon, Washington and Nevada has endorsed the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.

“This is the beginning of the end,” Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeted Sunday about the vaccine shipments. “Let’s crush this curve and get to the finish line.”

Still, public health officials say people need to wear masks and practice distancing. Scientists don’t yet know whether people who have gotten the vaccine can still spread the virus if infected, and only a small number of doses will be available initially.

California is set to receive about 327,000 doses in its initial batch, to be given to healthcare workers at direct risk of exposure to the coronavirus. The state could receive about 2 million doses of vaccine by the end of the month, which would help vaccinate the state’s 2.4 million healthcare workers.

It may be spring or summer before the general public has access to a COVID-19 vaccine, public health officials have said.

Times staff writers Ben Welsh and Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.


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