Los Angeles County is facing its most harrowing coronavirus numbers ever as the pandemic continues its record-shattering rampage through California and officials weigh further restrictions on activities and social gatherings.
Daily infections in the county have quadrupled and daily deaths have tripled in a matter of weeks, a rate of growth that’s led to “the most alarming metrics we’ve ever seen,” according to Barbara Ferrer, the county’s director of public health.
“The risk at this point is that overwhelming the healthcare system is now a very real possibility,” she told the L.A. County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
In the past seven weeks, the county’s number of new daily coronavirus cases, averaged over a seven-day period, has swelled from fewer than 1,000 to more than 4,000, a Times analysis has found.
COVID-19 hospitalizations have more than doubled in just three weeks, from about 800 on Halloween to 1,700 on Monday. The average number of daily deaths has also tripled to an average of 29 over the seven-day period that ended Tuesday.
The rate at which coronavirus tests are coming back positive in L.A. County is now 6.6%, nearly double what it was in late October and triple the rate in San Francisco.
“These very large increases in cases and hospitalizations will, without a doubt, lead to increased numbers of people dying,” Ferrer said.
Already, about 7,500 county residents have died from COVID-19, more than double the flu-related death toll from the last cold-and-flu season.
Hospitalizations are expected to continue soaring in the coming weeks as new infections are diagnosed.
State health officials have estimated that roughly 12% of those who’ve tested positive have ended up being hospitalized two to three weeks later, so a sustained and significant surge could stretch hospitals to their limits.
Without widespread and renewed commitment to taking the steps necessary to stymie transmission of the disease, “I do anticipate that we will use up those currently available beds that the hospitals are currently projecting that they have,” said Dr. Christina Ghaly, L.A. County’s director of health services.
“The challenge, as it has been throughout the pandemic, is with staffing, most directly in our ICU, where capacity is more limited,” she said Tuesday.
About a quarter of all COVID-19 patients need intensive care-level treatment.
Unfortunately, with California and much of the nation also experiencing a surge in cases, it will be far more difficult to call for staffing help if shortages reach crisis levels in L.A. County.
The state saw 16,681 new cases on Tuesday alone, the second-most ever in a single day behind only Monday’s figure of 20,654, according to an independent Times survey of California counties.
The state’s last significant coronavirus surge, after Memorial Day, was followed by a peak in daily deaths two months later.
If that pattern holds, it’s plausible that L.A. County could face a peak in daily COVID-19 deaths by Christmas or later.
By Tuesday, L.A. County had seen an average of 4,300 new daily infections over a seven-day period, according to Times analysis. In the summer, the average of daily new coronavirus cases topped out at 3,300.
Within one to two weeks, officials say the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in L.A. County could grow by another 30%, to around 2,200. That would equal the county’s highest total ever.
In light of the surge, the county has advanced additional actions to control the spread of disease. A new order closing outdoor dining areas at restaurants for at least three weeks will go into effect Wednesday night.
That move has not been without controversy, though, and two members of the county Board of Supervisors pushed unsuccessfully to repeal it Tuesday.
County officials are also preparing a new health order that is expected to ban all gatherings, except for outdoor church services and outdoor protests, and reduce capacity at storesbefore the traditional post-Thanksgiving shopping season gets underway.
The state has also imposed new measures, most notablyan order prohibiting most nonessential activity outside the home from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. in counties — such as L.A> County — that are in the strictest, “purple” tier of the state’s color-coded reopening road map.
“Every day we wait to make those changes means that we’ll have another day of high cases, another day of pressure on our hospitals, and this is something that we all have agency and responsibility to change,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s health and human services secretary.
The problem now is that with infections much higher than ever, activities that seemed safe a month ago are now potentially far more dangerous.
“In general, what we know is, any time we get together with individuals where your guard comes down, your mask comes off, you are closer than a few feet apart, there’s a risk of transmission,” Mark Ghaly said.
Because the virus can be transmitted without the infected person ever becoming sick, he added, “most people who have COVID may not know it, you create a real risk … as those activities increase, we know that you’re going to see transmission.”
To explain, the current spike in infections, officials cite the arrival of colder weather that keeps people indoors, raising the risk of transmission; increased travel from hard-hit states; gatherings to celebrate holidays or watch sporting events; protests and celebrations related to the recent election; an increase in workplace outbreaks; and wrong belief that the danger of the pandemic has passed.
Health officials are particularly nervous that crowds could carry the virus with them as they travel for the Thanksgiving holiday, much as similar holiday travel in China for the Lunar New Year fueled the onset of the pandemic.
Federal, state and local authorities have urged people to stay home for Thanksgiving and cancel travel plans.
So far, California remains in a better situation overall than some other parts of the country where hospitals are already overwhelmed. But officials say they worry that that could easily change.
Pandemic control measures have twice worked in the past to dramatically slow the spread of the disease — first in the spring, when a sweeping stay-at-home order was imposed; and then again in the early summer, when Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered bars, indoor restaurants and movie theaters closed in the hardest-hit counties.
Health experts and officials emphasize that the individual personal decisions that residents make still will play a pivotal role in taming the newest surge.
“COVID doesn’t care what we’ve done before today. COVID only cares how we are acting right now,” L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said earlier this week. “And the moment we stop acting to protect lives, the moment we ignore the numbers or hope that somehow they will just go away, is the moment lives are lost.”