An explosive and ferocious COVID-19 surge is besieging Los Angeles County’s hospitals like never before, officials said Wednesday, as the region reported an all-time daily high of 131 deaths from the disease and a record-shattering number of new infections.
The unrelenting rise in the number of coronavirus-infected Angelenos falling ill enough to require professional care is putting untold strain on the county’s medical system, raising renewed fears that the demand for beds soon outstrip those available — even in spite of the herculean efforts being put forth by healthcare workers to expand capacity to the greatest possible extent.
Dr. Christina Ghaly, the county’s director of health services, put it bluntly Wednesday: “Our hospitals are under siege, and our model shows no end in sight.”
More harrowing still, she said, is that “the worst is still before us.”
That’s because, as officials have long noted, hospitalizations are a lagging indicator of the coronavirus — and typically reflect exposures that took place two to three weeks prior.
Increases in coronavirus case counts, then, will invariably lead to an uptick in the number of infected patients who require hospitalization a few weeks down the line.
And infections have never been higher in L.A. County. Officials reported a staggering 21,411 new cases Wednesday.
Though that figure was inflated by a backlog of about 7,000 test results that were reported late, “these are nonetheless extraordinary numbers, and they represent transmission that continues to be out of control,” said county public health director Barbara Ferrer.
The previous record for the highest number of cases in a single day in L.A. County was 13,507, set on Friday. The old high-water mark for deaths was 93, set Tuesday, according to an independent Times tally.
“Every hour, on average, two of our neighbors, family members and friends are dying from COVID-19, and the virus is rampant in all neighborhoods,” Ferrer said during a briefing Wednesday. “We have the most difficult road yet in front of us, and I encourage everyone to stay home as much as possible, protect your families and friends and take every precaution that’s available to you.
“Unless we remain more vigilant and more diligent through the holidays and beyond, we will not be able to stop the surge and provide essential relief to our hospitals and our healthcare workers.”
The stratospheric number of new cases is particularly distressing, as L.A. County’s hospitals are already contending with an unprecedented crush of new patients.
Of particular concern are the county’s intensive care units, which are needed for the sickest patients — be they suffering from COVID-19, a severe injury or other maladies like a heart attack or stroke.
There, too, the county has seen a shocking increase. Tuesday’s record-high number of ICU patients in L.A. County, 991, is a 65% increase from two weeks ago.
Healthcare officials have some options to preserve ICU capacity, such as canceling scheduled surgeries, keeping critically ill patients in emergency rooms, sending ICU patients into step-down units earlier, training nurses from other units to help with intensive care, and increasing the number of patients each ICU nurse cares for.
However, officials emphasize those steps are neither sustainable for the long term nor sufficient if the patient load continues rising at the rate it has.
The eventual consequence of all this, Ghaly said, is “a hospital system and an emergency medical services system that cannot provide the level of care that we all expect or would want for ourselves or our loved ones.”
“Hospitals are working feverishly to staff up additional ICU beds, but there are simply not enough trained staff to care for the volume of patients that are projected to come and need care,” she said.
The news, though grim, is the latest evidence yet of what officials and experts have long feared: that California’s worst wave of the pandemic is far from over.
On Tuesday, the record for average daily deaths over a weekly period has been broken for seven consecutive days. The deadliest day of the pandemic thus far in California was fueled by record death tolls in six counties from San Diego up to the Bay Area, according to a Times analysis
Single-day COVID-19 death records were broken Tuesday in the counties of Los Angeles, with 93; San Diego, with 32; Santa Clara, with 24; Yolo, with nine; San Luis Obispo, with six; and Santa Cruz, with five.
The alarming figures came hours after Gov. Gavin Newsom disclosed Tuesday that state officials had been forced to order 5,000 body bags and 60 refrigerated storage units, each 53 feet long, for storing corpses. Newsom said he has activated the state’s coroners mutual-aid and mass-fatality program.
“Let’s deal with some sober realities,” Newsom said. “This is a deadly disease. And we need to be mindful of where we are in this current journey together to the vaccine: We are not at the finish line yet.”
Cumulatively, California has now reported 21,495 COVID-19 deaths and 1.65 million coronavirus cases.
The state is now averaging about 32,000 new coronavirus cases a day over the last week — an astonishing eight times more than the daily average in late October.
COVID-19 hospitalizations have never been higher: As of Monday, there were 14,283 patients statewide who have tested positive for the coronavirus, including 3,081 in intensive care. The record for COVID-19 hospitalizations has been broken for 17 consecutive days, and the number has more than doubled since Thanksgiving.
On Tuesday, ICU occupancy was highest in Southern California and San Joaquin Valley, with just 1.7% and 1.6% of available beds unfilled, respectively.
“We’re going through perhaps the most intense and urgent moment since the beginning of this pandemic,” Newsom said Tuesday.
Dr. Mark Ghaly, the California health and human services secretary, warned that the next two weeks — which include Christmas and New Year’s Day — are forecast to become even more difficult for hospitals already under major strain.
Ghaly said 12% of today’s newly diagnosed coronavirus cases are likely to require hospitalization. “And 12% of those that have been hospitalized are going to end up in our ICU,” he said.
Today’s hospitalizations are actually a reflection of coronavirus cases confirmed two weeks ago, when the average daily number over a weekly period was about 15,000 a day. Now, average daily cases number about 33,000 a day, meaning that pressure on the hospital system by New Year’s Eve is expected to be even greater.