L.A. County sees delays in ambulance response to 911 calls as COVID-19 taxes hospitals

An IV in a hospital
Angelenos are being asked to avoid the ER unless they have a true medical emergency. Meanwhile, hospitalizations of children with COVID-19 are rising.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Los Angeles County is beginning to see delays in ambulance response to 911 calls, as more employees are unable to work due to COVID-related illnesses and ambulances are forced to wait to offload patients at hospitals, health officials said Monday.

“People should reach out to their physicians for suggestions to treat mild COVID symptoms,” the county Department of Health Services said in a statement to The Times. “Do not seek COVID testing at emergency departments but at established sites.”

Meanwhile, hospitalizations of children with coronavirus infections in L.A. County have tripled in the last month.

There were 3.25 times as many children up to age 4 hospitalized on Christmas than on Dec. 4. Over the same period, hospitalizations of 12- to 17-year-olds were 3 times higher, while those of 5- to 11-year-olds were 1.5 times higher.


Studies have shown that the Omicron variant is less likely than Delta to infect the lungs, which in adults could reduce the possibility of pneumonia and breathing problems.

But Omicron owes its ultra-contagiousness to its prowess at infecting the upper respiratory system, and that could pose a problem for children, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday. Toddlers, he said, “have trouble with upper-airway infections. And you’re in fact seeing more croup-like infections and bronchiolitis in New York City among children. So, that could be a challenge for young kids, and we are seeing rising hospitalizations among that pediatric segment.

“This has not been a benign disease in young children. There’s a perception that young children haven’t been hit hard to date from coronavirus. That’s just not true. We’ve recorded more than 600 pediatric deaths from COVID over the last two years,” Gottlieb said. To put that in perspective, he added, there have been only three pediatric flu deaths over the course of the pandemic.

“So this is affecting children, and particularly young children,” he said. “And this new strain could have a predilection for the upper airway, which could be a bigger challenge in young kids because of the way that it binds to the airway cells.”

To reduce coronavirus spread, health officials are urging L.A. County residents to use masks that are medical grade, such as surgical, or blue, masks or N95, KN95 or KF94s. Wearing an old, loose, cloth mask alone is less effective. Placing a cloth mask on top of a surgical one can be more effective than a surgical mask alone as it tightens the fit.

Officials on Monday urged people to avoid going to the emergency room unless they have a true medical emergency.

“While we continue to experience the surge in cases, [the Department of] Public Health is reminding residents to avoid visiting the emergency room unless they need emergency medical care. Residents should not be visiting the emergency department solely to get a COVID test or for minor complaints that could be resolved through their primary care physician,” the county said in a statement.

“Emergency room visits should be reserved for those patients who are feeling severely ill — for example, those who are short of breath — or who have serious concerns about their health and who require immediate emergency care.”


L.A. County reported 16,269 new coronavirus cases Monday, an artificially low tally due to delays in reporting over the New Year’s weekend.

The county recorded 23,553 new cases Saturday and 21,200 more Sunday, far above last winter’s peak average of 16,000 a day. Those weekend numbers are also likely to be undercounts due to the holiday.

About 22.5% — more than 1 in 5 — L.A. County residents getting tested over the past week were positive for the coronavirus. The transmission rate in Los Angeles County is now estimated to be greater than at any point since the early months of the pandemic, as cases explode across California. Every infected person in L.A. County is transmitting the virus to an average of two others, according to state estimates published Monday afternoon. During last winter’s surge, the estimated transmission rate never exceeded 1.4, according to the county Department of Health Services.

L.A. school officials have ordered students and staff to undergo mandatory coronavirus testing before returning to campus Jan. 10 after winter break. Health officials urged that all staff and students be tested before or during the first few days of school.

Employees at all public and private schools in L.A. County will have to wear medical-grade masks at work, and students and staff must wear masks outdoors in crowded spaces, under tightened rules issued recently.

L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement that staff, teachers and students should get booster shots as soon as they are eligible. Boosters are available for those age 16 and older.

“An important protection from transmission of this airborne virus are well-fitting, higher-grade masks, and these should be worn by everyone at schools when indoors and in outdoor crowded spaces. And where possible, children and staff should have a negative COVID-19 test the first week they return to the classroom,” Ferrer said.


The federal government has begun the process to make younger teenagers eligible for booster shots. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday authorized boosters for 12- to 15-year-olds, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must make a recommendation before the shots are made available for that age group.

“The data shows there are no new safety concerns following a booster in this population,” the FDA said in a statement. The agency said there were no new cases of myocarditis, an inflammation in the heart, reported.

The FDA also cut from six months to five months the authorized amount of time between the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech primary vaccination series and a booster shot, for anyone age 12 and older.

In addition, the agency authorized certain children age 5 to 11 with weakened immune systems to receive a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.