LOS ANGELES – Worried Los Angeles County health leaders said Wednesday that the region was rapidly losing its battle against COVID-19 as the virus spread unchecked, adding that only immediate and decisive changes in behavior can prevent a steep rise in deaths as a post-holiday surge hits and hospitals can’t treat all who are sick.
“Today, I’m more troubled than ever before,” said Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.
“This is a health crisis of epic proportions and we need everyone — I mean everyone — to use the tools right in front of them to help us drive down transmission of this deadly virus.”
Southern California and much of the state are under a stay-at-home order, which officials believe has made a difference but was no match for holiday travel, gatherings and social events.
Ferrer and others said they believe the virus is spreading in workplaces, then in communities as families gather.
This is especially true in neighborhoods with multigenerational families living under one roof, often in overcrowded conditions.
Officials have urged people to stay home as much as possible and limit shopping if they can.
“It’s really up to us as a community of whether or not we want to get it back under control. The gatherings at Thanksgiving have put a lot of strain on hospitals in our most populated county in the nation. But we can’t let that stop us and we can’t let that make us defeated,” said Dr. Christina Ghaly, the Los Angeles County director of health services.
“We have the power to get this virus under control if we choose to do that, and it’s really up to us,” she added.
Coronavirus infections in California reached 2.5 million Wednesday.
According to The Times’ tracker, 1 of every 16 people in the state has tested positive for the virus at some point during the pandemic, with the number of new cases increasing by more than 1 million in less than a month.
Los Angeles County’s situation is particularly grim. On a daily basis, 1 in every 5 tests are now coming back positive. That number was 1 in 25 in early November.
What had been an inexorable daily increase in hospitalizations for COVID-19 has started to level off, probably representing a time period of relatively lower virus transmission in the first couple of weeks of December, about the time the regional stay-at-home order was issued but before people started gathering for the Christmas holiday.
But those gains are expected to be short-lived.
Mobility data suggest there was a lot of travel and socializing at the end of December. If there hadn’t been, the local outbreak would be peaking right now and starting to decline soon.
Under the stay-at-home order, outdoor dining and some businesses such as hair salons have been temporarily closed.
But shopping malls remain open, as do many retail stores, with safety protocols.
This week, officials said the virus was widespread, and they repeated these suggested changes in behavior: Avoid eating or drinking with anyone not in your household; wash or sanitize your hands every hour if you’re around others; exercise by yourself or only with others from your household.
L.A. County reached another distressing milestone, surpassing 11,000 COVID-19 deaths Tuesday.
Over the last week, the county has averaged 183 COVID-19 deaths a day — the equivalent of one every eight minutes — and 13,500 new coronavirus infections, a count expected to grow with the reopening of testing sites after the holidays.
The county’s cumulative coronavirus case count now tops 853,000.
“The higher the numbers of new cases, the higher the number will be of people who are ending up needing care in the hospital,” Ferrer said. “And for many of the people who go into the hospital for care, they have significantly longer lengths of stay than other people seeking care at the hospital.”
COVID-19 patients now average six or seven days in the hospital until they’re discharged or die.
Hospitals have been forced to add ICU capacity by using space in other parts of the hospital to house critically ill patients, including recovery rooms.
“Overall ICU capacity is far above what it would normally be,” Ghaly said, and about three-quarters of the staffed ICU space now is filled with COVID patients.
Other parts of Southern California have also been hit hard.
In San Diego County, after posting a relatively low 1,814 new cases Tuesday, the number jumped to 3,815 Wednesday.
Nathan Fletcher, chair of the county Board of Supervisors, said during the county’s weekly COVID-19 briefing that experts continue to predict a significant surge of additional cases, and eventually hospitalizations, connected to the Christmas-New Year’s Eve holiday week.
“We expect the holiday cases to arrive soon, and a corresponding increase in hospitalizations to continue, certainly, through the end of the month,” Fletcher said.
Orange County officials reported 3,077 new cases, bringing total reported cases in the county to 175,032. An additional 17 deaths were recorded.
Those deaths include about five skilled nursing facility residents and 12 assisted living facility residents.
Orange County deaths are at 1,943.