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L.A. County COVID-19 death toll surpasses 12,000 as post-Christmas surge worsens

Nurses Melissa Brawley and Ashley Gould moves a COVID-19 patient from his stomach to his back in an intensive care unit.
Healthcare workers struggle to keep up with the number of COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit Dec. 29 at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

The post-Christmas surge of coronavirus cases is worsening in Los Angeles County, a much-feared scenario that officials say will result in more crowding at already overwhelmed hospitals and an increase in deaths. On Saturday, L.A. County reached new milestones in the pandemic: more than 12,000 dead from COVID-19 and more than 900,000 cases of the coronavirus.

The coming days are expected to be critical in determining how bad this surge will get and how much it will affect conditions at hospitals.

L.A. County’s average number of new coronavirus cases on Thursday, Friday and Saturday was 17,879 — significantly above last week’s average of 14,000.

“This very clearly is the latest surge from the winter holidays and New Year’s — no question about it,” said Dr. Paul Simon, chief science officer of the L.A. County Department of Public Health, on Friday. “It had gradually started earlier in the week, but [definitely is] here in the last day or two.”

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On Saturday, there were 218 COVID-19 deaths reported in L.A. County. That came the day after the county set a single-day record, with 318. L.A. County has averaged 200 COVID-19 deaths a day over the past week.

The number of people dying from COVID-19 daily now exceeds the average number of deaths in L.A. County from all other causes — including heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, car crashes, suicides and homicides — which is about 170 a day.

“This is another devastating day for Los Angeles County. The speed with which we are reaching grim milestones of COVID-19 deaths and cases is a devastating reflection of the immense spread that is occurring across the county,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement Saturday.

“This accelerated spread reflects the many unsafe actions individuals took over holidays. The travel and intermingling with non-household members made it much easier for transmission of the virus,” Ferrer said. “As a result, there is so much more risk when engaging in any activity that has you exposed to people outside your household.”

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About 1 in 5 coronavirus tests performed daily in Los Angeles County is coming back positive, a huge spike from November, when about 1 test in 25 confirmed an infection.

Ferrer urged residents to pause activities outside the home that aren’t essential. “This is just not the time to go to the shopping mall or to a friend’s house to watch a basketball or football game,” she said.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have leveled off in recent days but remain high — at about 8,000. Intensive care units are effectively stretched beyond capacity across L.A. County; there were a record 1,731 ICU patients on Friday, about triple the number from Dec. 1. There are only about 2,000 staffed ICU beds in L.A. County, and earlier in the week, about 400 were occupied by non-COVID patients.

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Meanwhile, officials Saturday confirmed three additional cases of the coronavirus-related multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children known as MIS-C. A total of 54 children in L.A. County have contracted the severe illness, and one has died. The disease can cause fever and inflame the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes and gastrointestinal organs. The disease is disproportionately affecting Latino children, who account for about 3 of 4 reported cases.

What is particularly frightening about the coronavirus, Simon said, is how unpredictable it is in terms of who becomes severely ill. Earlier in the pandemic, only 7% of COVID-19 deaths in L.A. County occurred among people with no underlying medical conditions, while now, 14% of deaths are among that group.

“I know personally someone who is in his late 30s who became very ill,” Simon said. “Everybody needs to recognize that this virus has the potential to wreak tremendous havoc, tremendous damage within the body.”

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Statewide, Friday was the worst day yet for COVID-19 fatalities, with 676, according to a Times survey of health agencies. That figure easily topped the previous single-day record of 575, set Dec. 31.

To prepare for more deaths, the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services has been preparing to dispatch 88 refrigerated trailers around the state that can serve as temporary morgues. Ten have already been designated for Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Imperial, Monterey and Sonoma counties.

On Monday, six men and women from the California National Guard arrived to assist county workers in the loading of bodies from hospital morgues into one of 12 refrigerated storage units at the L.A. County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner, said Sarah Ardalani, a spokeswoman with the coroner’s office. Additional members of the National Guard are expected to come next week.

The leader of a trade group representing California hospitals said Friday that the state’s healthcare system will be swamped starting in about a week.

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“We do anticipate the worst of this is to hit in another week or 10 days, and may continue into the month of February,” said Carmela Coyle, president and chief executive of the California Hospital Assn.

“This has been unprecedented for our state, unprecedented for the nation, unprecedented for the world,” she said during a conference call. “But we find ourselves today, in terms of the numbers, at a point where we are standing on a beach and watching a tsunami approach.”

Simon pointed out symptoms that warrant emergency medical attention, such as a call to 911 or a call ahead to the hospital:

• Trouble breathing
• Bluish lips or face
• Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
• New onset of confusion
• Inability to wake or stay awake

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“It is also critically important not to wait till you are sick to identify a regular source of healthcare. If you don’t have a regular healthcare provider, get one today,” Simon said. “The odds are simply too great at this moment that you will be exposed to COVID-19. And if you are, you’re going to need a doctor, a nurse to alert and discuss your symptoms or options and care options.”

L.A. County residents who don’t have a healthcare provider can call 211 to get more information.


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