New COVID infections in Los Angeles County numbered 6,500 Wednesday, more than double the number from Tuesday.
The alarming rise was characterized by the county's top public health official as a "staggeringly fast'' spike that could potentially lead to daily numbers topping 20,000 by year's end -- the highest yet of the pandemic.
Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the striking number of 6,509 new COVID infections on Wednesday marked "one of the steepest rises we've ever seen over the course of the pandemic.'' On Thursday, Los Angeles County reported 8,633 new virus cases and 24 new deaths.
Ferrer also reported a sharp increase in the daily average rate of people testing positive for the virus, with the number reaching 4.5% as of Wednesday, more than double the 1.9% rate from a week ago.
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She also announced another 162 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 Omicron variant identified through special sequencing needed to identify different strains of the virus, bringing the total to 264. Ferrer said that increase shows the highly transmissible variant is quickly becoming the dominant strain of the virus fueling the current surge in cases. Since the county only performs sequencing on a fraction of positive COVID tests, the true number of Omicron infections in the county is easily far higher.
"These numbers make it crystal clear that we're heading into a very challenging time over the holiday,'' Ferrer said during an online media briefing. "If our case numbers continue to increase at a rapid pace over this week and next, we could be looking at case numbers we have never seen before, well over 20,000 cases a day by the end of the year.''
If there was any good news in the report, it was that hospitalization and death numbers have not yet seen a corresponding upward spike, but Ferrer noted that those statistics are both "lagging indicators, because most people don't experience severe illness until a few days after testing positive.''
She said severe illness and hospitalizations will occur primarily among the unvaccinated, and could easily overwhelm hospital systems coping with more staffing issues than they were during last winter's COVID surge.
"As you can see, over the past couple of days, reported cases are going up steeply,'' she said. "Meanwhile, our hospitalizations are holding relatively stable. This staggeringly fast rise and the health care system's strain that has followed similarly steep increases elsewhere in the world is the cause of our alarm.''
The 6,509 new cases confirmed Wednesday brought the county's cumulative pandemic total to 1,576,702. The county also reported 16 more COVID deaths, for a total of 27,488.
According to state figures, there were 770 COVID-19-positive patients in county hospitals as of Wednesday, up from 748 on Tuesday. Of those patients, 166 were in intensive care, down from 174 a day earlier.
As of Sunday, 78% of eligible county residents aged 5 and up have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 70% were fully vaccinated. Of the county's overall 10.3 million residents, 74% have received at least one dose, and 66% are fully vaccinated.