For the second day in a row, Los Angeles County reported a record-high number of coronavirus-related deaths Thursday, while hospitalizations continued rising and health officials fretfully awaited another holiday weekend that could lead to widespread gatherings of people and more spread of the virus.
The county Department of Public Health reported 148 new COVID-19 deaths on Thursday, topping the record of 145 set Wednesday. The new fatalities raised the cumulative countywide death toll to 9,299.
Health officials also reported another 13,678 cases of COVID-19, raising the overall total since the pandemic began to 677,299. The county reported 6,499 people hospitalized due to the virus, but the state -- which tends to have more updated figures -- put the county's total at 6,708, including more than 1,300 in intensive care unit beds.
The continued numerical climb in all categories has health officials on edge heading into Christmas weekend, fearing residents will again ignore warnings against gatherings and spark an even larger surge in infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
“Anyone who is willing to be honest with the facts and the timeline of the rising case counts and the reality that is bombarding our hospitals must accept that our collective behaviors as a community of Los Angeles County in the days around Thanksgiving directly led to our rising rates of hospitalizations and the rising deaths that we are now experiencing,” county Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly said Wednesday. “Well-intentioned desires to see family and friends that we haven't seen a awhile and to share time off over the holidays with those we love has resulted in more people getting very, very sick and has pushed our hospital system to the place it is today.”
The growing number of hospital patients, particularly in ICU beds and emergency rooms, has hospitals across the region struggling to find room for patients and staff to care for them. Ghaly said some ambulance crews have been waiting hours outside emergency rooms to offload patients due to lack of space.
According to Ghaly, 96% of the county's 70 emergency-room-equipped hospitals diverted ambulance traffic to other medical facilities at some point during the day on Tuesday due to overcrowding -- up from the normal average of 33% for this time of year.
“I'm very worried today that there are thousands of L.A. County residents whose actions are creating tremendous risks and contributing to the continued surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said. “This virus makes people sick because a person with COVID-19 -- through their breathing, talking, singing, chanting -- expelled the virus in their respiratory droplets and other people nearby were then infected from the droplets. This need not happen if we stay away from non-household members as much as possible.”
She added: “With thousands of cases of newly infected people every day, and the fact that many people have no symptoms and simply don't know that they're carrying the virus, it is highly likely that every time you and others in your household leave your home, you will come into contact with somebody who's infected.”
The county's most current modeling estimates that one in every 95 residents who aren't hospitalized or in quarantine are infected with the virus and capable of spreading it. That's a slight improvement from last week, when the estimate was one in 80 residents. The transmission rate of the virus -- the average number of people every COVID patient infects with the virus -- was estimated at 1.11 on Wednesday, down slightly from 1.2 last week.
But Ghaly said those numbers shouldn't be mistaken as a sign the virus is any less prevalent or deadly, noting that anytime the transmission rate is over 1.0, the number of cases in the county will continue to grow.
“These rising cases will put even more strain on our already overburdened hospitals and the people who work in them,” Ghaly said. “...New patient hospitalizations have continued to increase at a rate that we haven't seen before in the pandemic.”
She said about 750 new COVID patients are being admitted to hospitals every day. As of Thursday morning, the county's 70 “911-receiving” hospitals had 723 total available beds, and just 63 ICU beds -- 42 of them adult beds and 21 pediatric.
“Most hospitals are reporting officially no available ICU beds, already having surpassed the licensed ICU capacity and the capabilities of their available staff,” Ghaly said.
The county has an overall licensed ICU capacity of about 2,500 beds. According to the county DHS, hospitals surged their capacity to operate a daily average of 2,660 ICU beds last week. On average, those beds were occupied by 996 confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases on a daily basis, or about 37% of the 2,660 staffed beds. The hospitals last week averaged 55 open and staffed ICU beds on a daily basis.
Those 70 hospitals operated a daily average of about 10,000 non-ICU beds last week, with 36% of them on any given day occupied by confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients, and only about 300 beds staffed and available each day.
The average number of hospitalized COVID patients in the county has increased by 547% since Nov. 9. Average daily deaths are up 467%, from about 12 per day in early November to 69 per day last week. Average daily new cases have soared by 907%.
Health officials warned that since the numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths generally reflect people's behaviors from two weeks ago, all of those figures are expected to rise through at least the end of the year. Ghaly said the daily number of COVID patients in hospitals is likely to exceed 7,500 by next week.
Ghaly sought to dispel the assertions of many that health protocols are a needless infringement on personal freedoms, insisting that the actions of individuals during a pandemic unavoidably affect the entire population.
“This is a very false narrative and only leads to more destruction and suffering,” she said. “We are all interdependent. What one person does and how they live their lives affect not just those in his or her immediate vicinity, but the contacts of those people and on and on. Your choices have consequences. They have consequences not just for themselves, they have consequences for every single person they interact with and many others that they will never know.”