Los Angeles County reported a staggering 16,510 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, one of the highest daily totals of the pandemic and up nearly 75% from Tuesday, while the hospitalization number soared again, prompting a call for residents to rethink their holiday gathering plans.
"As cases continue to rise, it is important that we all use the tools available to help us curb the spread,'' county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement. "As we get ready to welcome the new year, this includes re-thinking party plans, limiting time indoors with non-household members, and isolating from others if feeling sick. And always wear a medical grade mask when in close contact with others outside your household.
"With increasing evidence that vaccinated, and where eligible, boosted individuals have significant protection against severe COVID illness, the best way to limit heartache during one of the worst COVID surges, is to get vaccinated and boosted as quickly as possible,'' she said.
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The county Department of Public Health urged residents "to scale down New Year's plans by limiting gatherings to a very small number of people where everyone is fully vaccinated and boosted if eligible.'' That agency added in a statement, "Large, crowded events are just too risky this holiday.''
The county reported an additional 25 COVID-related deaths on Wednesday, raising the overall death toll to 27,601. The 16,510 new cases gave the county a cumulative total from throughout the pandemic of 1,649,376.
The seven-day average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus also continued a disturbing climb, reaching 17.6%. That's up from about 3% a week ago and less than 1% a month ago.
According to state figures, the number of COVID-positive patients in county hospitals rose to 1,251 as of Wednesday, up from 1,069 a day earlier. Of those patients, 198 were being treated in intensive care, down from 207 on Tuesday.
The increase in virus-related hospitalizations is being closely watched by public health officials concerned that hospitals -- which expanded capacity to handle COVID patient numbers that topped 8,000 last January -- are less equipped to cope with such an intense surge this winter due to various factors, most notably a drop in staffing.
L.A. County has seen a more than 30% jump in hospitalizations over the past week. One month ago, on Nov. 27, the state reported just 568 virus patients in the county.
The rapid spread of the virus is being blamed on the Omicron variant of the virus, which experts say is easily spread from person to person. Health officials said Omicron is believed to be responsible for 59% of all U.S. COVID infections, out-pacing the previous Delta variant, which now accounts for 41%.
During the week that ended Dec. 18, 54% of all COVID specimens that underwent genetic testing in the county were Omicron variants, according to the Department of Public Health.
Even people fully vaccinated are susceptible to Omicron infection, although health officials say they are far less likely to become severely ill, wind up hospitalized or die. Ferrer said last week unvaccinated people are 21 times more likely to be hospitalized than vaccinated people.
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.
The health department announced Friday that it was expanding access to free COVID testing amid greater demand around the holidays.
The changes include:
-- Extended hours of operation at sites across Los Angeles County;
-- Additional week and weekend dates;
-- Additional mobile testing units in hard-hit areas;
-- Re-launch of Holiday Home Test Collection Program with new guidelines to reach more people and make it easier to get tested. The link is at https://covid19.lacounty.gov/hometest.
Any county resident who is symptomatic or believes they were exposed to COVID-19 can order a home testing kit, which require swab collection to be mailed back for PCR test result.