With the swiftly spreading omicron variant’s growth showing no sign of relenting, Los Angeles County posted 34,448 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, Jan. 8, with 16 new deaths linked to the virus.
More than 200,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases have been reported over the past seven days, the highest numbers of cases in one week since the early waves of the pandemic, public officials said. The new totals raised total cases to 1,921,890 since the pandemic began and pushed the death toll to 27,772.
The number of LA County residents hospitalized with coronavirus continued to soar as well, growing by nearly 400 in one day, according to the state’s dashboard. The increase in cases and patients seeking care have strained the region’s ability to meet demands for testing, as well as taxing the already weary health-care industry.
With 3,200 in hospitals countywide, the number of those patients in intensive care hit 411, up from 391 on Friday and 352 on Thursday.
Many of those patients entered the hospital for another reason and only discovered they had the coronavirus after a mandated COVID test, according to local officials.
While still short of the peak hospitalization numbers seen last winter — when more than 8,000 coronavirus-positive patients filled hospitals — the rising numbers, driven by the omicron variant, are still generating concern. Medical facilities are finding themselves increasingly short-staffed, in part because of rising cases of COVID-19 among health-care workers.
The county on Friday, Jan. 7, set a record for new daily cases for the second straight day — topping 40,000 — as staffing shortages in the health-care system worsen and some hospitals have been forced to divert ambulances at times.
The Department of Public Health reported 43,712 new coronavirus cases on Friday. That broke Thursday’s record of more than 37,000 cases.
“Our hearts remain with those families experiencing the sorrow of losing those they love to COVID,” said Director of Public Health Barbara Ferrer. “As the surge continues, we ask residents and businesses to continue following the public health safety measures that we know reduce spread and keep people safe. This includes wearing a medical grade mask that is more protective against the Omicron variant and not spending time around others who are unmasked. These upgraded masks can be a surgical mask or an N95 or KN95 respirator mask.”
The county reported 973 infections among health care workers over the past week, according to the Department of Public Health, a jump of 47% from the prior period. That rise comes despite the relatively high rate of vaccinations among health care workers — showing the power of the omicron variant of the virus to infect even inoculated residents.
Fortunately, early evidence suggests omicron causes less severe symptoms.
“It’s one of the most transmissible viruses I’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Ali Jamehdor, medical director of emergency at Long Beach’s St. Mary Medical Center, operated by Dignity Health. “The good part about it is that it seems like it’s not as deadly.”
The state is requiring all health-care workers in the state to receive a booster dose of vaccine by Feb. 1. Those who do not receive the booster must be tested twice weekly.
“Keeping health-care workers safe is critical to maintaining functionality across our health-care facilities when surges lead to staffing shortages and rising rates of hospitalizations,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement Friday. “Across multiple health-care settings, our health-care personnel have given their all and been fully vaccinated at high levels for many months.
“Every resident can also do their part to protect our health-care personnel and hospitals. Please get vaccinated or boosted as soon as possible if eligible. Vaccinated individuals are between 10 and 30 times less likely to need hospital care than those unvaccinated. We ask that you do not go to the emergency room unless you need care for a serious medical concern and please do not call 911 unless you have a life-threatening emergency.”
Meanwhile, to support local communities with additional testing facilities and capacity amid the national surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday announced the activation the California National Guard.
“California has led the country’s fight against COVID-19, implementing first-in-the-nation public health measures that have helped save tens of thousands of lives,” Newsom said. “We continue to support communities in their response to COVID by bolstering testing capacity.”
In response to the booming demand, a new COVID-19 testing site in Santa Monica with initial capacity to test up to 1,920 people daily opened Saturday in the former Sears building at 302 Colorado Ave., near Fourth Street — at 6 a.m. sharp with clients already in line.
“In response to the overwhelming demand for testing, 911 COVID Testing is bolstering its capacity and launching a new mega-site in Santa Monica. We ultimately aim to accommodate the extremely high demand for testing brought forth by omicron,” said the company’s chief operating officer, Steve Farzam.
People can get a free PCR test with 24- to 48-hour turnaround time, pay $95 for a rapid 15-minute antigen test, or $155 for a priority 12-hour PCR test. Farzam added that most insurance companies reimburse customers for rapid antigen tests. The complex will be open every day from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The new Santa Monica site will also test people for “flurona,” a combination of COVID-19 and the flu, which was detected in a teen by a 911 COVID Testing site near the Getty Center in Brentwood.
People can make an appointment to get tested at the new site, or any of 911 COVID Testing sites at bit.ly/3t8fjMo.
The rise in cases and hospitalizations have strained the region’s ability to meet the demands for testing, as well as spread hospital teams thin as they already grapple with a growing number of infections in their ranks.
Many hospitals have been in diversion mode over the past several days for “a significantly higher number of hours than they usually would be,” as COVID-19 patients seek emergency medical care, said Long Beach’s St. Mary Medical Center medical director Jamehdor.
Diversion is a tool used by hospitals nearing capacity to redirect patients to different nearby facilities. At the height of the pandemic, 70% to 90% of LA County hospitals were on diversion because they couldn’t accept patients who required advanced life support.
A handful of hospitals also declared “internal disasters,” turning away ambulances of all kinds to reduce the pressures on staff.
But now hospitals aren’t on diversion because they’re overwhelmed by extremely sick patients, Jamehdor said — it’s because of how many COVID-19 patients come to the emergency room seeking help for mild cases — or in some cases, simply seeking a coronavirus test.
Kaiser Permanente, for example, reported on Friday, Jan. 7, that its Downey Medical Center emergency department had been placed on diversion.
“The latest COVID-19 surge, spurred on by the highly contagious omicron variant, has put a tremendous strain on every hospital and health-care system in Southern California,” Kaiser spokeswoman Jennifer Maravillas said in an email. “The demand for testing has put a particular strain on hospitals, and we are asking everyone to only go to emergency rooms and urgent care for medical emergencies — and not for COVID-19 testing.”
Jamehdor, for his part, noted that while it seems simple to head to an emergency room and skip potentially long lines at community testing sites, “it really does inundate and back up the ER for other cases.”
In Torrance, Providence Little Company of Mary, also on diversion at times because of the omicron surge, reported a similar problem — confirming they have received an influx of emergency department visits from those wanted to be tested.
“With an influx of COVID-19 patients at our hospital, Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center is currently not providing COVID-19 tests to community members who are not seeking emergency medical treatment,” wrote hospital spokesman Andrew Werts. “We ask the community to seek out alternative community testing sites for COVID-19 testing.”
LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer has also urged residents to avoid emergency rooms — to save resources for truly life-threatening situations.
The county, in fact, sent out a health alert on Friday asking health-care providers to communicate with patients on when to seek medical care for COVID-19, that 911 and ERs are for emergencies only, and how and where to seek tests.
“9-1-1 and emergency departments in Los Angeles County,” the message for health-care providers said, “are inundated with calls and visits for COVID-19 tests and care for mild COVID-19 illness.”
Beverly Hospital of Montebello, for example, has had to go on diversion status multiple times during the last several weeks, said spokeswoman Kathleen Curran.
“When you have a full emergency department and staffing limitations, you have no choice,” Curran said. “The ER has been so busy with COVID patients, and we’ve also had staffing limitations.”
People have also sought testing from Beverly Hospital, Curran said.
“If you consider your symptoms to be generally mild — like a runny nose, a mild body ache, or a low-grade fever that is being controlled with Motrin or Tylenol, that’s pretty much the main treatment for this infection right now,” Jamehdor said. “But short of those things, there’s not a whole heck of a lot of other things that are going to be provided by going to an ER.”
Southern California is not alone. Omicron continues to spread rapidly across the globe, accounting for at least 80% of COVID-19 cases in California.
The county’s rolling average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was 20.9% as of Friday.
Surging infection numbers prompted the county this week to amend its public health order, requiring employers to provide upgraded masks to employees who work indoors in close contact with others.
The order, issued Wednesday, will take effect Jan. 17 and requires employers to provide affected workers with “well-fitting medical grade masks, surgical masks, or higher-level respirators, such as N95 or KN95 masks.”
The revised order also amended the definition of outdoor “mega events,” where masking is required, to 5,000 or more attendees. The definition of indoor “mega” events was also amended to 500 or more people. The numbers align with those in the state’s health order. The county’s order also “recommends” that food and drink be consumed only in designated dining areas.
The upgraded mask requirement for county workplaces mirrors an order released late last week by the county for K-12 schools, requiring teachers and staff to wear higher-grade face coverings. USC announced this week it will require all students and staff to wear higher-grade masks when in-person classes resume.
According to county figures released Thursday, of the more than 6.4 million fully vaccinated people in the county, 199,314 have tested positive for the virus, for a rate of 3.1%, while 3,348 have been hospitalized, for a rate of 0.05%. A total of 625 fully vaccinated people have died, for a rate of 0.01%.
The testing-positivity rate, however, may be artificially low due to the number of people who use take-home tests and don’t report the results.
Overall, 79% of eligible county residents aged 5 and older have received at least one dose of vaccine, while 71% are fully vaccinated. Of the county’s overall population of 10.3 million people, 75% have received at least one dose, and 67% are fully vaccinated.