As predicted, Los Angeles County topped 20,000 new COVID-19 cases Thursday amid what has become a dramatic surge in virus transmission that is continuing to drive up hospitalization numbers and raising fears that a higher death count will soon follow.
County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer reported 20,198 new COVID infections on Thursday, a number that she said represents a tripling of the number from just a week ago.
The new cases lifted the county's overall total since the pandemic began to 1,669,545. Another 24 COVID-related deaths were also reported, giving the county an overall death toll of 27,625.
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More dramatically, the average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus rose to 21% as of Thursday -- seven times higher than it was a week ago. Last month, the rate was less than 1%.
"We are, in fact, experiencing the worst of the surge at the moment with the rising number of cases,'' Ferrer said during an online briefing.
The number of COVID-positive patients in county hospitals also continued rising, with state figures showing the number at 1,365 as of Thursday, up from 1,251 on Wednesday. The number of those patients in intensive care was 214, up from 198 a day earlier.
Ferrer said that while circulation of the highly transmissible Omicron variant of COVID-19 has led to more fully vaccinated people getting infected, hospitalizations continue to be affecting primarily unvaccinated people. She said the hospitalization rate for unvaccinated people is 28 per 100,000 residents, while the rate for the vaccinated has remained relatively flat at 1 per 100,000.
"Vaccination continues to be highly protective against hospitalization,'' she said.
She said statistics show unvaccinated people are 14 times more likely to die from the virus than the vaccinated. She also noted that overall, death rates of remained relatively flat in the county, despite the dramatic surge in infections, but she said that could change.
"Deaths fortunately remain low and they haven't changed, but this is because we're only about a week out from when our hospitalizations started rising,'' she said.
Officials have said about 90% of the COVID deaths during the pandemic occurred in people who had underlying health conditions. The most common conditions are hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.
According to county figures, of the more than 6.3 million fully vaccinated people in the county, 127,172 have tested positive for the virus, for a rate of 2%, while 3,094 have been hospitalized, for a rate of 0.05%. A total of 602 fully vaccinated people have died, for a rate of 0.01%.
Overall, 79% of eligible county residents aged 5 and older have received at least one dose of vaccine, while 71% are fully vaccinated. Of the county's overall population of 10.3 million people, 75% have received at least one dose, and 67% are fully vaccinated.
The lowest vaccination rate is among children aged 5-11 -- the most recent age group to become eligible for the shots.
Ferrer urged more people to get vaccinated, and noted there are 2.9 million vaccinated residents in the county who are eligible for booster doses who have not yet received them.
"We urgently need to get more people protected by boosters,'' she said.
Ferrer and county Supervisor Holly Mitchell urged residents to be cautious as they celebrate New Year's Eve, with Ferrer noting, "The risk of virus transmission has never been higher in our county.'' She urged people to avoid large gatherings, and gather outside whenever is possible. People who have underlying health conditions or aren't vaccinated should avoid gatherings altogether, she said.
Ferrer said she respected plans for the Rose Parade to go on as scheduled on Saturday, despite the large crowds it traditionally gathers. But she said people at high risk for virus transmission or for severe illness if they become infected should avoid attending.
"This might be the year for some people to be watching this on TV,'' she said.
The city of Long Beach, which like Pasadena maintains its own health department separate from the county, also issued a statement Thursday warning of a dramatic rise in COVID infections. According to the city, average daily cases in Long Beach jumped by 1,234% during the month of December.
"While cases are rising in Long Beach, the good news is that hospitalizations are not increasing as quickly as they were last January,'' City Health Officer Dr. Anissa Davis said in a statement. "This is a testament to the fact that vaccinations and boosters are proving effective at preventing severe disease. Please get vaccinated if you haven't already, and get boosted if you're eligible. Regardless of whether you're vaccinated or not, it is important to get tested if you are showing any symptoms of COVID-19, which can be as mild as a cold or allergies.''
Long Beach's Billie Jean King Main Library was closed on Thursday due to a "known COVID-19 exposure.'' Library officials said the affected areas are being cleaned, and the library is scheduled to reopen Tuesday.