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New coronavirus cases top 16,000 in L.A. County, among highest of pandemic

A line of people at Union Station.
People wait in line to get the COVID-19 test at Union Station on Dec. 27.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County reported one of its highest single-day coronavirus case counts on Wednesday as the fast-spreading Omicron variant continues to trigger an avalanche of infections statewide.

The fierce resurgence of the coronavirus has raised fresh concerns about end-of-year gatherings even as preliminary evidence mounts that the strain may result in less severe disease than its Delta counterpart.

Health officials in L.A. County confirmed 16,510 new positive cases Wednesday, a staggering figure they attributed to surging transmission of both Delta and Omicron.

A week ago, the county reported 6,509 new daily cases. Over the last week, public health officials said the test positivity rate has more than doubled from 8.7% to 17.6%.

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“As cases continue to rise, it is important that we all use the tools available to help us curb the spread,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement. “As we get ready to welcome the new year, this includes re-thinking party plans, limiting time indoors with non-household members and isolating from others if feeling sick.”

Over the last week, California has averaged 20,467 new cases per day, an increase of 228.1% compared with two weeks ago, according to The Times’ coronavirus tracker. That’s higher than at any point during the summer Delta surge.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday that the nationwide average number of daily cases over the last week has climbed beyond 277,000, exceeding the peak of 160,000 during the summer Delta surge and the all-time high of 250,000 reported last winter.

A sharp spike in COVID cases, fueled in part by the Omicron variant, prompts health experts to urge revelers to scale back New Year’s Eve gatherings.

In an effort to slow the spread of the disease, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s top medical advisor, cautioned against large gatherings during the New Year’s holiday.

“If your plans are to go to a 40- to 50-person New Year’s Eve party with all the bells and whistles and everybody hugging and kissing and wishing each other a happy New Year, I would strongly recommend that this year, we do not do that,” he said. “We feel you should continue to go through with those plans of having a home-related, vaccinated, boosted gathering, with family and close friends who are also vaccinated and boosted.”

Preliminary data continue to show that the Omicron variant of coronavirus results in less severe disease than its Delta counterpart, according to Fauci.

Cases from the U.K. and South Africa showed reduced risk of hospitalizations, Fauci said during a White House briefing Wednesday morning. In recent reports from Scotland, the risk of hospitalization with Omicron was 66% lower than in previous waves.

South Africa reported that among patients who do end up in the hospital, they stayed an average of four days, compared with 8.8 days during the Delta wave.

Currently in the U.S., data suggest that “the spike in cases is out of proportion to the increase in hospitalization,” Fauci said. As of Tuesday night, the 14-day average shows a 126% increase in cases, and an 11% increase in hospitalizations.

“We must remember that hospitalizations and deaths are lagging indicators, but the pattern and disparity between cases and hospitalizations strongly suggest that there will be a lower hospitalization-to-case ratio when the situation becomes more clear,” he said.

Though the number of COVID-19 patients statewide remains far below the high marks of last winter’s surge, hospitalizations are again rising in California. As of Tuesday, 4,759 coronavirus-positive patients were hospitalized statewide — a nearly 33% increase from a week ago.

The rise has been even steeper in Los Angeles County — which saw its daily patient count grow by 62% since Dec. 21, from 770 to 1,251. Orange County reported a 75% increase during the same time, from 215 to 376.

It’s unclear how many of the new hospitalizations are linked to Omicron or whether the Delta variant remains dominant.

It’s possible hospitals will be challenged with more patients in the coming weeks.

“Our case rates are going up incredibly fast, and some proportion of people that get sick will require a hospital bed,” Dr. Sara Cody, the Santa Clara County public health director and health officer, said during a news conference Tuesday.


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