Southern California will likely face extended stay-at-home order after holiday surge in coronavirus cases

Nurses work with a COVID-19 patient in the ICU unit of Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

A holiday surge in coronavirus cases may result in extended stay-at-home orders for Southern California and other areas.

The earliest date that Southern California could have become eligible to exit the existing order was Monday, but state officials said Sunday that the region and several other areas of the state would likely have to continue following the restrictions for several more weeks as the recent surge is pushing hospitals to the breaking point.

The restrictions include reduced capacity at retail stores; the closure of some businesses including hair salons, nail salons, card rooms, museums, zoos and aquariums; and a prohibition on most gatherings, hotel stays for tourism and outdoor restaurant dining.


Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom expressed doubt that the Southern California and San Joaquin Valley regions would emerge from the state order by Monday due to a steady erosion of intensive care unit beds for COVID-19 patients.

Stay-at-home orders will remain in effect until the region’s projected ICU capacity is equal to or greater than 15%, according to state guidance. In the Southern California and San Joaquin Valley regions — which combined cover 23 of California’s 58 counties — the current available ICU capacity stands at 0%.

That doesn’t mean there are no unoccupied ICU beds at all, as the state uses a weighted formula to ensure that some remain open for patients who don’t have COVID-19. But officials and experts warn that an overcrowded ICU can overburden doctors and nurses, imperiling the quality of care for everyone, including COVID-19 patients, heart attack victims and those who were seriously injured in a car accident.

“It is likely that the Regional Stay at Home Order will extend for many regions in California,” the California Department of Public Health said in a statement Sunday. Once a county reaches the ICU threshold of 15% capacity or greater, it must maintain that status for four weeks.

The agency reported that the state has 2,122,806 confirmed cases to date, with over 24,000 deaths. There were more than 50,000 newly recorded confirmed cases on Saturday.

On Saturday, Los Angeles County health officials reported 29,423 new coronavirus cases over Christmas Day and Saturday combined. Friday’s numbers — 15,538 cases — were delayed because of an interruption with Spectrum internet service in the L.A. area.


Local health agencies also reported 136 deaths over the two-day period. The county averaged about 14,000 new coronavirus cases a day and 88 COVID-19 deaths daily over the past week.

Hospitals throughout the county are overwhelmed. Some are running dangerously low on their supplies of oxygen, critical to treating severely ill COVID-19 patients who have begun to suffocate on account of their virus-inflamed lungs. Emergency rooms are so overcrowded that ambulances have to wait as long as eight hours to drop off patients or are sometimes sent to hospitals farther away.

Under one scenario, experts predict there could be a boost in new coronavirus cases by mid-January, a surge in hospitalizations by late January and early February, and another burst of deaths by early to mid-February.

The quick succession of holidays in the fall and winter months typically allows people to celebrate and spend time with loved ones in a brief period.

But that leaves little time for coronavirus cases to start falling before they spike again, creating surges on top of surges.

Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, a medical epidemiologist and infectious disease expert at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, said a person who is exposed to COVID-19 at a Christmas gathering could be infectious by New Year’s Eve.


However, the individual may be asymptomatic, go to a New Year’s Eve party and unknowingly spread the disease, he said.

Coupled with a high infection rate — about 1 in 95 in Los Angeles County are contagious with the virus, according to county estimates — the holidays are creating a “viral wildfire,” he said.