Advertisement

COVID-19 deaths hit 11,000 in L.A. County, as surge creates ‘a human disaster’

Maria Padilla cleans the room of a COVID-19 patient in the ICU at Providence St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County hit another disturbing milestone Tuesday, exceeding 11,000 COVID-19 deaths. Officials warned of dark weeks ahead amid a post-Christmas surge that is expected to put pressure on already overwhelmed hospitals.

The county has reported nearly 1,300 deaths since Dec. 30, according to health officials, including 237 on Tuesday, according to data compiled by The Times.

Over the past week, Los Angeles County averaged 183 COVID-19 deaths a day — the equivalent of one every eight minutes — and 13,500 new coronavirus infections a day, a count expected to grow with the reopening of testing sites after the holidays. The county’s cumulative case count now tops 841,000.

L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis said Monday that while it took 10 months for the county to accumulate 400,000 coronavirus cases, it took only about a month to record an additional 400,000.

Advertisement

“That is a human disaster, and one that was avoidable,” Solis said. “But I need to underscore that it could be worse. The situation is already beyond our imagination. But it could become beyond comprehension if the health restrictions in place are not fully obeyed.”

L.A. County is a national epicenter of COVID, but the problem extends across many other parts of California. After a relative New Year’s lull, the state on Monday reported its highest number of new coronavirus cases in a single day, more than 74,000, according to a Times tally of local health jurisdictions. That is 11% more than the previous record of 66,726, which came Dec. 28.

California has averaged 37,000 new cases a day over the last week, down from a high of 45,000 in mid-December. Still, the situation is far worse than it was at the beginning of December, when 14,000 cases a day were recorded.

Advertisement

On Monday, California posted its sixth-highest daily tally of COVID-19 deaths: 379. The average over the last week was 353 a day, the highest yet. The state’s cumulative fatalities top 27,300.

Even when figures are adjusted to account for the state’s population, California’s COVID-19 outbreak ranks among the worst in the country.

Over the past week, the state has averaged 96 new daily cases per 100,000 residents — tying it with Rhode Island for the second-highest rate in the nation, behind Arizona’s 112, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The nationwide daily average for new cases over the same period was 64 per 100,000 residents.

Advertisement

Amid the already overwhelming surge, California faces another potential threat: the presence of a new coronavirus variant, first identified in the United Kingdom, that some scientists believe is more contagious.

Though it’s unclear how prevalent the variant is statewide, San Diego County health officials Tuesday reported 24 additional confirmed cases and four likely cases. That raises the county’s total of known or suspected infections by the variant virus to 32.

The two dozen newly infected patients “are believed to have no travel history and to have come from 19 different households, but the investigation and contact tracing are ongoing,” according to a statement by San Diego County officials. Those infected are widely dispersed geographically and range in age from 10 to their 70s.

The variant has also been identified in two people of the same household in Big Bear in San Bernardino County.

Advertisement

Experts say there’s no evidence that the variant — known as B.1.1.7 — is deadlier, causes more severe illness or has an impact on vaccine efficacy. But any heightened risk of infection is unwelcome news, particularly in areas already reeling from sky-high levels of coronavirus transmission.

Though L.A. County officials have yet to document the variant’s presence, “having a virus that is able to infect more people more quickly than what we’re seeing today” is a “frightening thought,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Tuesday.

While many of those infected may experience only mild symptoms or none at all, California health officials have warned that a sizable slice, about 12%, will fall ill enough to require hospitalization within a few weeks after they are exposed.

A significant and sustained wave of new infections, then, will invariably slam hospitals with additional patients.

Advertisement

“This week is critical in terms of a bigger understanding of where we are and if we’re going to hit that surge on top of a surge, on top of yet another surge,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said.

Though the figures dipped around New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, the number of coronavirus-positive patients hospitalized statewide rose to 21,597 Monday, a new record. Of those patients, 4,634 were in intensive care units.

The story is much the same on the local level, as California’s most-populated counties continue to see record or near-record levels of hospitalizations.

Advertisement

Conditions in ICUs, which require specialized staff and equipment to care for the sickest patients, are of particular concern. The availability of intensive care beds in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley has stood at 0% for weeks; the metric doesn’t mean no beds are available, because the state uses a weighted formula to ensure that some remain open for non-COVID patients, but it does indicate that hospital capacity is stretched to the limit.

Health officials in San Joaquin County reported Monday that the need for intensive care had reached an all-time high, with adult ICUs at 175% above their licensed bed capacity.

“The impact of COVID-19 on the members of our community and our healthcare system is glaring,” Dan Burch, the county’s Emergency Medical Services administrator, said in a statement.

The situation is less dire but still concerning in the Bay Area and Greater Sacramento, where ICU availability Tuesday was at 5.9% and 11.7%, respectively.

Advertisement

All four of the state-defined regions where ICU availability is below 15% are under stay-at-home orders, which include a host of restrictions on businesses and activities aimed at stymying coronavirus transmission. Those orders will remain in place until ICU availability, forecast four weeks out, is 15% or higher.

In L.A. County, there were 8,023 hospitalized COVID-19 patients Monday — 125 more than the previous day. Of them, 1,642 were in the ICU, also a record.

“It is getting harder and harder for healthcare workers to care for those coming to the hospital with gunshot wounds, heart attacks, strokes and injuries from car accidents,” Solis said. “Hospitals are declaring internal disasters and having to open church gyms to serve as hospital units. Our healthcare workers are physically and mentally exhausted and sick.”

Advertisement

The number of COVID-19 patients in ICU wards has quadrupled since late November.

“Given the current state of the pandemic in Los Angeles County, the worst is almost certainly still ahead of us,” Dr. Christina Ghaly, the L.A. County director of health services, warned. “As of today, hospitals continue to be significantly strained. All hospitals are being inundated with COVID patients.”

She said overcrowded hospitals have been forced to leave patients in hallways or keep them waiting in ambulances.

“The demand for oxygen is so great that some hospitals are having trouble maintaining an adequate degree of air pressure to keep a high-flow rate of oxygen pumping into lungs of COVID-19 patients that have been inflamed,” Ghaly said.

Advertisement

Both public and private hospitals are experiencing “complicated and numerous” issues with their oxygen supply infrastructure, she added Tuesday.

At Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar, workers had to fix the supply system because oxygen was freezing in the pipes. Harbor-UCLA Medical Center is still experiencing oxygen flow issues, which limit where patients can be placed in the hospital.

Ghaly said vendors are struggling to provide hospitals with enough oxygen canisters and staff to refill portable containers — which are used primarily while patients are being transported within the hospital or when they’re in tents awaiting further care.

To address critical staffing needs at hospitals, L.A. County has closed five outpatient clinics and reduced hours and services at others.

Advertisement

As of Tuesday, almost 850 nurses and other healthcare workers from the shuttered sites had been sent to serve at either hard-hit public hospitals or one of eight quarantine and isolation housing sites, Ghaly said. In addition, two 20-person teams from the U.S. Department of Defense and 40 contract nurses are being sent to relieve beleaguered staff at county hospitals.

As conditions continue to deteriorate, officials have noted with alarm that many Californians disregarded their pleas to stay home for the holidays — while some anti-maskers have joined in protests against the health orders that are in place.

“We are in the midst of an unprecedented and dangerous surge,” Solis said. “Despite what protesters claim, this is not a hoax.”

Advertisement

Ghaly reminded residents of the role they play in battling the worst public healthcare crisis of the last 100 years.

“It’s not about you; it’s about the other people around you,” she said. “And in this time of mass crisis, we need to think of our neighbors. Please show others the basic common courtesy and take the lifesaving action of wearing a mask when you’re around others.”

While officials say it’s understandable that Angelenos are frustrated with the continued restrictions and tired of living with the looming threat of the pandemic, they point out that hope is on the horizon, given the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines.

Advertisement

Since mid-December, L.A. County has received about 357,500 doses, including 189,995 doses of the Pfizer vaccine that has primarily been used to inoculate healthcare workers at 83 acute-care hospitals, Ferrer said during Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

As of Sunday, 60% of the Pfizer doses had been administered to front-line healthcare workers at hospitals, Ferrer said.

The county has received about 170,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine, which will be given to residents and staff at skilled nursing facilities, as well as emergency medical technicians and paramedics, among others.

Ferrer said it has been a challenge to vaccinate healthcare workers who are busy contending with the COVID-19 surge at their hospitals. Additionally, she said, one vaccine site had to turn away a crowd of more than 150 non-healthcare workers who showed up Monday.

Advertisement

“I think it’s a very positive sign that lots of people are ready to be vaccinated,” Ferrer said, noting that the public must be patient as the county works through vaccinating healthcare and essential workers and other priority populations.

The county this week will receive a “much smaller” shipment of vaccine than the federal government had originally indicated, only enough to allot to workers at acute-care hospitals for their second doses, Ferrer said.

“I think we were all expecting a lot more vaccine would come to the state, and we would get our fair share of that,” she said.

It’s unclear whether the shortfall is due to issues of production, distribution or something else, Ferrer added.

Advertisement

“If we get enough doses, we hope we would complete vaccinating the healthcare workers and those in long-term care facilities [by the] end of January, beginning of February,” she said. “The ‘if’ there is really dependent on getting enough vaccine.”

Times staff writer Andrea Roberson contributed to this report.


Advertisement
Advertisement