Los Angeles County reported 1,730 new cases of COVID-19 and 94 additional deaths Saturday, while the number of coronavirus patients in county hospitals continued to trend downward.
According to state figures -- which are typically a day ahead of county numbers -- there were 1,661 COVID-19 patients in L.A. County hospitals, down from 1,733 on Friday. That's well below the peak of more than 8,000 patients in early January.
Officials cautioned the public to remain vigilant and follow recommended health protocols to keep the momentum going.
"We have been in this position before, on the downside of a surge in cases. We must not have a false confidence and must stay committed to the very safety measures that are helping to decrease our cases, hospitalizations and deaths," County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said.
Dr. Paul Simon, chief science officer with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said Friday that the appearance of various variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 is not surprising and should not spark panic.
"This is an RNA virus, and we know that RNA viruses, when they replicate, the genetic material makes lots of mistakes, or mutations," he said. "Most of those mutations are completely insignificant. ... But every once in a while there's one or several mutations that we become more concerned about that seem to potentially at least influence the behavior of the virus. So the virus can become more transmissible or the virus can become more virulent, more likely to cause more severe disease, or of great concern, it might be more resistant to the vaccines.
"So that's a concern, but I don't think at this point there's any need for panic,'' he said. "I think what we are seeing is that the vaccines that have been authorized ... seem to in some cases be less effective with some of the variants, but nonetheless still seem to be pretty effective."
As of this week, a total of 18 cases of a coronavirus variant first detected in the United Kingdom have been found in Los Angeles County, but there haven't been any cases of a variant found in South Africa. A variant that emerged in California last summer appears to have become dominant in much of the state.
But all major metrics continue to trend downward in the county. Simon said the rate of decline has slowed slightly, "but in my mind that's not surprising given that we're getting to lower numbers."
He stressed, however, that the numbers still aren't low enough to suggest that people can go back to normalcy.
"We're still seeing 1,500 to 2,000 cases a day," he said. "That indicates a pretty significant level of ongoing community spread of the virus, so that's unfortunate."
Simon noted the drop in hospitalizations, but said the death toll has remained frustratingly high.
"We continue to see quite a high number of deaths, very tragically," he said. "I think most days here over the past week it's been over 100 deaths per day, much below what we were seeing, again, ... in the surge when we were seeing 200 to 300 deaths a day. But the more sustained higher number of deaths, again, is not surprising, given the magnitude of the surge and the fact that it sometimes takes considerable time to progress from infection to more severe illness and then to ultimately passing away."
Saturday's numbers brought the county's cumulative totals to 1,190,894 cases and 21,328 deaths.
Meanwhile, officials were getting the word out about next week's massive expansion of the COVID-19 vaccination pool. Beginning Monday, doses will be offered to workers in education and child care, food and agriculture, and law enforcement and emergency services , about 1.2 million people in all.
But officials are preaching patience as vaccine supplies remain limited and the increased eligibility is expected to create some logistical hiccups. The public can visit VaccinteLACounty.com for more information or to schedule an appointment.
Although vaccine supplies remain limited, county health officials expressed hope that conditions will improve dramatically with federal approval of a single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.