January 15, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

1 in 5 L.A. COVID tests are positive amid current surge

About 1 in 5 coronavirus tests performed daily in Los Angeles County are currently coming back positive, an astounding rate that officials say illustrates the pandemic’s continued rampage through the region and foreshadows grave consequences for an already beleaguered healthcare system.

Around Nov. 1, roughly the starting point of the current coronavirus wave, only about 1 of every 25 conducted tests confirmed an infection.

Officials warn that the arithmetic is as grim as it is simple. When such a high proportion of people are testing positive, and you’re conducting tens of thousands of tests a day, you end up with case counts that are staggeringly high.

And when community transmission is this prolific, officials warn activities that seemed mundane months ago now carry a higher risk of infection than ever.

“When so many people are positive, the need for precautions significantly increases,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Wednesday.

While it’s understandable for Angelenos to “feel exhausted and pushed to the limit by the daily drumbeat of warnings about the seriousness of the COVID-19 situation here in L.A. County, and the constant pleadings to do simple things like wearing a face covering and staying home as much as possible,” Ferrer said the magnitude of the crisis is a clarion call “for the small number of people who are either not getting the message, or who are actively choosing to disregard it.”

“Today, tomorrow and for the next several weeks, we ask for your daily commitment and steadfast perseverance to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 and to help us turn this dire scene around,” she said during a briefing. “We have lost far too many lives to COVID-19 in L.A. County, and unfortunately, we will continue to lose more until we’re able to get everyone to work together to break the chain of transmission.”

Though coronavirus case rates have flattened somewhat in L.A. County following weeks of sharp increases, the county is still seeing roughly 13,000 to 15,000 cases a day — far too high to provide any real sense of relief at overwhelmed hospitals.

California posted nearly 38,000 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, continuing a trend over the past week in which the statewide daily total has flattened at about 39,000. That’s modestly less than the peak in mid-December, when California was reporting as many as 45,000 new cases a day.

But experts fear that the counts could begin rising again by the end of the week, as people who were exposed to the virus over Christmas or New Year’s begin to fall ill and get tested for the virus.

Though many of those infected with the coronavirus may experience only minor symptoms, or none at all, officials have long warned that the daily caseload is only the start of a disastrous domino effect.

A certain proportion of those testing positive — state officials have estimated about 12% — will fall ill enough to require hospitalization in the weeks following their exposure. Some of those people will worsen to the point they need to be placed into intensive care. Some won’t survive.

This cascading effect means high numbers of cases on the front end will invariably lead to more suffering and grief down the line.

“People who were otherwise leading healthy, productive lives are now passing away because of a chance encounter with the COVID-19 virus,” Ferrer said. “This only ends when we each make the right decisions to protect each other.”

Conditions across L.A. County’s healthcare system are already bleak.

Hospitals are reporting significant shortages of staff because so many employees are out sick or on quarantine. Officials have warned they’re running short of available ambulances, with emergency rooms so full that transport vehicles must wait hours to drop off patients — forcing those calling 911 to wait even longer for paramedics and emergency medical technicians to arrive.

Even supplies of life-saving oxygen have been stretched thin both by overwhelming need and problems with aging hospital infrastructures.

“If the transmission within Los Angeles County, as we suspect it probably did, increased over the holidays, then we will experience an increase in hospitalizations,” said Dr. Christina Ghaly, the county’s director of health services.

Available staffed beds in ICUs across L.A. County are essentially beyond capacity, forcing critically ill patients to be treated in areas not normally designed for them, such as recovery rooms.

As of Wednesday, 1,635 coronavirus-positive patients were in intensive care countywide — seven more patients than the day before and about 23% more than two weeks ago, according to state data.

On Tuesday, the overall number of COVID-19 hospitalizations climbed to a new record: 8,098. The number dipped slightly Wednesday, to 8, 074, but the numbers are up nearly 20% over two weeks’ time.

Over the last few days, the net daily increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations across California has been roughly 200, down from the 500 to 600 the state had been adding recently.

Though the rate has leveled off somewhat, officials said this week that more than one-third of all available adult hospital beds in L.A. County and roughly three-quarters of all staffed ICU beds are still occupied by patients with COVID-19.

“Hospitals continue to be inundated with COVID patients,” Ghaly said. “While the numbers are plateauing somewhat, they’re doing so at a rate that is well above our point of comfort for all hospitals — particularly when we’re facing another potential surge in the next couple of weeks.”

Hospitals across the state have been asked by officials to come up with plans for “crisis standards of care” that would be implemented when healthcare facilities are so overwhelmed they have to start prioritizing resources based on how likely patients are to survive.

It’s unclear how many hospitals have been pushed to that point. In Arcadia, Methodist Hospital of Southern California has taken the grim step of convening a triage team to make decisions about potentially allocating limited resources, but officials there said Wednesday they had not yet had to ration any care.

Both the high case counts and overwhelming hospital demand bely the pandemic’s most devastating impact, however.

An additional 560 COVID-19 deaths among Californians were reported Wednesday, just under the single-day record of 575 that was reported on New Year’s Eve, according to a Times tally of local health jurisdictions.

An average of 381 residents have died statewide over the last seven days, a new high.

L.A. County reported a death toll of 260 Wednesday — nearly half the state’s fatalities, even though the region includes just one-quarter of California’s population.

Wednesday’s countywide death toll was the third-highest recorded on a single day. L.A. County is now averaging 183 reported daily deaths over the past week, near its all-time high.

The rising death toll is overwhelming funeral homes and causing state officials to dispatch refrigerated trucks across California to hold corpses as hospital morgues fill up. The National Guard has been called to L.A. County to help with the temporary storage of bodies at the medical examiner-coroner’s office and relieve pressure on hospital morgues and private mortuaries that have run out of storage space for corpses.

Given the current conditions, and the potential for even darker days ahead, officials said the only way to beat back the pandemic is for everyone to redouble their efforts to tamp down potential transmission — and take all the precautions necessary to keep themselves, their loved ones, their friends, neighbors and co-workers from becoming infected.

“While it is fair to say that the virus is out of control, I do want to remind people that it’s really up to us, as a community, of whether or not we want to get it back under control,” Ghaly said. “The gatherings at Thanksgiving have put a lot of strain on hospitals … but we can’t let that stop us, and we can’t let that make us defeatist. We have the power to get this virus under control if we choose to do that, and it’s really up to us.”