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L.A. County urges residents to postpone nonessential gatherings, activities as Omicron surges

Outdoor dining in Manhattan Beach.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

As an unprecedented wave of coronavirus infections washes over the region, Los Angeles County health officials are urging residents to postpone nonessential gatherings and avoid some activities — especially those with people who are unmasked, unvaccinated or at higher risk of severe COVID-19 illness.

The ask comes just ahead of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend. The Lunar New Year is also right around the corner on Feb. 1, and the Super Bowl at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood is a month away.

Speaking to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer acknowledged that “this is not the start to the new year we had all envisioned.”

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But given the state of the pandemic, health officials are “asking that, over the next few weeks, we all try to avoid nonessential activities where people are unmasked and in close contact with others,” she said.

The recommendation is voluntary and officials have not imposed any new restrictions that would force the cancellation of any events. In fact, Ferrer said last week she didn’t see the Super Bowl being disrupted and expressed hope that L.A. County would start seeing a reduction in daily coronavirus cases by then.

The county’s rules regarding events like the Super Bowl remain unchanged. Large outdoor events may proceed with attendees 5 and older required to be either fully vaccinated or show a recent negative coronavirus test and with masks being worn by everyone 2 and older except when actively eating or drinking.

But the guidance comes as hospitals are being strained, hobbled by staffing shortages that have forced some to cancel scheduled surgeries.

L.A. Unified students return to school amid coronavirus surges, standing in long lines as the district’s Daily Pass screening system fails.

Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles has started to postpone some medical procedures and paused scheduling of noncritical procedures, said hospital spokesperson Sally A. Stewart, who noted that the hospital “is experiencing a significant increase in patient admissions.”

Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in West Carson is holding off on less-pressing surgeries and scheduling only critical and urgent procedures, the L.A. County Department of Health Services said Tuesday.

And Kaiser Permanente Southern California is doing fewer surgeries than usual — roughly 70% to 80% of what is typical — because some patients are testing positive for the coronavirus, said Dr. Nancy Gin, regional medical director of quality for the system.

L.A. County, like the rest of the state and nation, is grappling with a massive spike in infections fueled by the Omicron variant, the most transmissible version of the coronavirus.

In the last week, the county has reported 266,000 new coronavirus cases, rewriting its pandemic record book and pushing the region past another milestone: more than 2 million recorded infections.

“Parties and events, especially those indoors with unvaccinated individuals or those at high risk for severe illness, make it very easy for this virus to spread,” Ferrer said. “Limiting our time with others to those more essential work-related or school-related activities is a prudent action for everyone to take whenever it’s possible.”

Ferrer also urged the public not to use rapid tests, which are often hard to find, as a passport to party. It’s becoming clear that that strategy, she said, is “not that effective, as many people have learned, and it doesn’t help us make sure that we’re able to get testing kits out to those people who really need it.”

“We don’t have capacity for everyone to be testing every day right now,” Ferrer said. “The safest thing to do right now is curtail some of those nonessential party activities, where we’re having too much spread, and wait while we build up that testing capacity.”

California this week surpassed 6 million cumulative coronavirus cases reported throughout the pandemic, according to data compiled by The Times. And the total is continuing to rise rapidly.

“With the additional tools we have, particularly easy access to free vaccine, we ought to be able to use different strategies to get us through these challenging times,” Ferrer said. “As always, though, it takes the full cooperation of all of us to move forward with grace and get through this surge.”

While L.A. County’s guidance is not a mandate, Sonoma County health officials have enacted a 30-day ban on large gatherings. Under a new public health order, large gatherings of more than 50 people will be banned, along with outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people.

Half of all reported coronavirus cases in the last two weeks that have a known source of infection have been linked to gatherings, officials say.

The ongoing Omicron wave has prompted both renewed calls for caution and some new measures aimed at checking the strain’s spread.

California has already extended a previously issued statewide mask mandate for indoor public spaces through at least Feb. 15.

Experts and officials say it’s particularly important for residents to upgrade their masks to the better-fitted, medical-grade variety. N95, KN95 and KF94 masks provide the best protection, and surgical masks — commonly called blue masks — are better than old, loose cloth masks alone. Surgical masks can be made more efficient by wearing a cloth mask on top of them.

The arrival of Omicron has pushed daily caseloads to their highest levels and sent a stream of new coronavirus-positive people to the hospital.

Checking the coronavirus’ breakneck spread is vital, officials say, to ensure that healthcare systems aren’t swamped with a deluge of additional patients.

Hospitalizations of coronavirus-positive patients in L.A. County are rising rapidly and have risen to 3,766 as of Monday, five times the number compared to last month. But the latest number is less than half the record of 8,098 coronavirus-positive hospital patients recorded on Jan. 5, 2021.

There were 513 ICU coronavirus-positive hospital patients in L.A. County as of Monday, nearly triple last month’s number. That is still less than one-third of last year’s peak, when there were 1,731 coronavirus-positive ICU patients on Jan. 8, 2021.

The number of coronavirus-positive individuals hospitalized statewide has skyrocketed in recent weeks. Monday’s daily census was 11,815, an 89% increase just since Jan. 1.

Patient counts haven’t been this high since last February, when California was still shaking off the worst of its devastating winter surge.

However, officials note that circumstances are different this time around — though not uniformly for the better.

Hospitals are seeing a lower share of people admitted specifically for COVID-19 illness than during prior waves. About 40% of coronavirus-positive patients at L.A. County’s public hospitals are being treated for COVID-19; the rest are being treated for other reasons and their coronavirus diagnosis was incidental to the reason for their hospital treatment. During the last surge, more than 80% of hospital treatments were for COVID-19, Ghaly said.

In general, tests are able to reveal an Omicron infection, but enough virus needs to have reproduced and appear at sufficiently high levels in the nose or saliva to be detectable, health officials say.

Times staff writer Nathan Solis contributed to this report.


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