L.A. County’s Christmas coronavirus surge is worsening

The post-Christmas surge of coronavirus cases is worsening considerably in Los Angeles County, a much-feared scenario that officials say will result in more patient crowding at already overwhelmed hospitals and an increase in deaths.

The coming days are expected to be critical in determining how bad this next surge will get and how much it will affect conditions at hospitals.

On Thursday and Friday, L.A. County reported 18,764 coronavirus cases and 17,827 cases, respectively — significantly above the average of about 14,000 new cases a day over the last week.

“This very clearly is the latest surge from the winter holidays and New Year’s — no question about it,” said L.A. County Department of Public Health’s chief science officer, Dr. Paul Simon. “It had gradually started earlier in the week, but [definitely] here in the last day or two.”

About 1 in 5 coronavirus tests performed daily in Los Angeles County is coming back positive, a huge spike from November when only about 1 of every 25 tests confirmed an infection. And when community transmission is this prolific, officials warn that activities that seemed mundane months ago now carry a higher risk of infection than ever.

Simon said it’s likely to continue over the next week or two, which will translate into even worse hospitalizations and more deaths. The number of daily COVID-19 deaths is already breaking records; in early December, about 30 people in L.A. County were dying every day from COVID-19 on average over a seven-day period; now, about 190 people on average are dying each day from COVID-19.

“I think it is a public health crisis at this point,” Simon said. Hospitals “are extremely strained, extremely overextended.”

The number of people dying from COVID-19 daily is now exceeding the average number of deaths in L.A. County for all other causes, including heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, car crashes, suicides and homicides, which is about 170 deaths a day.

On Friday, there were 318 COVID-19 deaths reported in L.A. County — the largest single-day tally on record, breaking the previous single-day record of 291, logged on New Year’s Eve.

Friday was the worst day yet for COVID-19 fatalities in California, as well as in Los Angeles County.

There were 676 deaths reported in the state Friday, including the 318 in Los Angeles County, according to a Times survey of health agencies. The figures easily top the previous single-day records: 575 deaths in California and 291 in L.A. County, both set on Dec. 31.

“We anticipate that the number of hospitalizations and deaths will remain high throughout this month because of what occurred over the holidays,” Simon said. “We’re going to see high levels of hospitalization and, sadly, deaths over at least the next two to four weeks.”

What is particularly frightening about the coronavirus, Simon said, is how unpredictable it can be in who it hits hard. Although earlier in the pandemic, only 7% of COVID-19 deaths in L.A. County occurred among people with no underlying medical conditions, now 14% of all deaths have occurred among people with no medical conditions.

“I know personally someone who is in his late 30s who became very ill,” Simon said. “Everybody needs to recognize that this virus has the potential to wreak tremendous havoc, tremendous damage within the body,” Simon said.

To prepare for more deaths, the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services has been preparing to dispatch 88 refrigerated trailers around the state that can serve as temporary morgues. Ten have already been designated for Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Imperial, Monterey and Sonoma counties.

With hospital morgues overcrowded and overwhelmed funeral homes forced to turn families away, the L.A. County coroner’s office is accelerating efforts to temporarily store bodies.

On Monday, six men and women from the California National Guard arrived to assist county workers in the loading of bodies from hospital morgues into one of 12 refrigerated storage units at the L.A. County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner, said Sarah Ardalani, a spokeswoman with the coroner’s office. Additional members of the National Guard are expected to come next week.

The leader of a trade group representing California hospitals said Friday that the peak of the current wave is expected to swamp the state’s healthcare system starting in about a week.

Even though hospitals across the state are already contending with record numbers of COVID-19 patients, “we do anticipate the worst of this is to hit in another week or 10 days, and may continue into the month of February,” said Carmela Coyle, president and chief executive of the California Hospital Assn.

“This has been unprecedented for our state, unprecedented for the nation, unprecedented for the world,” she said during a conference call. “But we find ourselves today, in terms of the numbers, at a point where we are standing on a beach and watching a tsunami approach.”

Officials said the expected surge is all the more reason for people now to stay home as much a possible, even though people may have become exhausted at constantly hearing pleas to avoid going out and socializing with others in person, which risks transmitting the highly contagious virus.

Simon said any of these symptoms warrant emergency medical attention, such as a call to 911 or a call ahead to the hospital to let the operator know you are seeking care for these conditions, or you’re seeking care for someone with these conditions.

• Trouble breathing
• Bluish lips or face
• Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
• New onset of confusion
• Inability to wake or stay awake

“It is also critically important not to wait till you are sick to identify a regular source of healthcare. If you don’t have a regular healthcare provider, get one today,” Simon said.

“The odds are simply too great at this moment that you will be exposed to COVID-19. And if you are, you’re going to need a doctor, a nurse to alert and discuss your symptoms or options and care options,” Simon said.

For those who don’t have a healthcare provider, L.A. County residents can call 211 to get more information.