January 23, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

L.A. to get temporary morgues as COVID-19 deaths mount

So many people are dying from COVID-19 in Los Angeles County that state officials now plan to set up temporary morgues to help handle the substantial, and sobering, number of bodies.

The move was announced by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services on Thursday — the same day L.A. County reported 205 new deaths from COVID-19 and the third consecutive day more than 200 Angelenos have perished in the pandemic.

L.A. County has averaged 171 COVID-19 deaths a day over the past week, and officials have warned that toll will only continue to rise unless the region can contain the raging coronavirus.

“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,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said this week.

State officials said one temporary morgue would be located in a parking lot next to the L.A. County coroner’s office and include at least a dozen 53-foot trailers supplied by the county and Cal OES, as well as other refrigerated storage containers.

Cal OES has also facilitated distribution of 88 additional refrigerated trailers — 10 of which are designed to serve as temporary morgues and have been sent to locations in L.A., Imperial, Sonoma, San Bernardino and Monterey counties, according to a statement from the office.

These resources will help “ensure we don’t get large backups, or, if we do have backups, they’re dealt with [with] respect and dignity [and] that we have the appropriate equipment in place or materials that are required for coroners and medical examiners to effectively deal with the decedents,” Cal OES Director Mark Ghilarducci said in a statement.

The state’s actions are the latest in an effort to relieve pressure on hospital morgues and private mortuaries that are running out of storage space for the bodies of COVID-19 victims.

Officials said last week that the California National Guard had been called in to help county workers as corpses from hospital morgues are moved into storage at the L.A. County Department of the Medical Examiner-Coroner.

More than 28,000 Californians have died from COVID-19 throughout the pandemic — and the toll is climbing rapidly.

The state has averaged 368 daily deaths over the last week, an increase of 45% from two weeks ago, according to data compiled by The Times.

Since Christmas, nearly 4,600 people statewide have died of COVID-19.

L.A. County has been hit particularly hard. The county’s 11,500-plus coronavirus-related fatalities make up 40% of California’s total, even though the county accounts for only one-fourth of the state’s population.

The next-highest death toll is Riverside County’s 2,189. Over the last week, an average of 204 people have died every day from COVID-19 in that county.

Health officials have long pointed out that the pandemic’s progression is predictable, and inevitable. People become infected with the virus, and within roughly two weeks, a certain number fall ill enough to require hospitalization. Shortly after that, some patients’ conditions will worsen to the point that they need intensive care, and a share of those will die.

The lagging nature of the disease’s progression means it takes weeks to fully assess the consequences of the actions of residents and businesses. It also takes weeks for renewed personal vigilance or newly imposed restrictions to begin showing results.

Health officials have said the current surge walloping California began around Nov. 1 but kicked into overdrive in early December — fueled by travel and gatherings over the Thanksgiving holiday.

There’s real concern that a similar pattern is about to strike the state in the aftermath of the winter holiday season.

L.A. County recorded its fourth-highest daily number of new coronavirus cases Thursday, with 18,764, according to a Times tally of local health jurisdictions. That’s well above the daily average over the last week of about 14,000.

California posted just under 40,000 new coronavirus cases Thursday, continuing a trend over the last week that shows the statewide daily total flattening around that level. That’s slightly less than the peak in mid-December, when California was reporting as many as 45,000 new cases a day.

However, officials have cautioned that the case rate still remains far too high to provide any real sort of relief.

“I don’t believe that this is a new plateau that will automatically come down,” L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said Thursday. “In fact, it’s my belief that this is just a pause before a new peak brought on by the evidence we see of too much movement that happened around Christmas and New Year’s. So hold on, because things may get worse.”

About one in five coronavirus tests performed daily in L.A. County are coming back positive, an astounding rate that underscores just how many people are infected — and infectious.

“We have the power to get this virus under control if we choose to do that, and it’s really up to us,” Dr. Christina Ghaly, the county’s director of health services, said this week.

Unless transmission is controlled, hospitals throughout L.A. County and the state will continue to be overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients.

In L.A. County, hospitalizations have stabilized at a high number, hovering between 8,000 and 8,100 from Monday through Wednesday. While the county has recently avoided some of the steep growth seen earlier in the surge, officials have warned this level of hospitalizations is unsustainable, having already plunged the healthcare system into crisis, created a shortage of available ambulances and forced patients to wait hours for beds to open.

But the worst, as Garcetti foreshadowed, is probably yet to come. Most of the people in L.A. County’s hospitals for COVID-19 were infected before Christmas. It won’t be until next week, experts say, that it becomes clear how much worse the post-holiday surge could be.

Statewide, hospitalizations are still heading upward. As of Wednesday, the most recent day for which complete data is available, there were 21,936 coronavirus-positive patients hospitalized in California, with 4,712 in intensive care.

The number of people hospitalized now is about 16% higher than it was two weeks ago.

Another surge, officials have said, could potentially force hospitals to ration care should resources and staff be stretched too thin.

At this point, officials and experts say the best way Californians can keep themselves safe from the coronavirus is to stay home as much as possible. If you do venture out, it’s important to wear a face covering and maintain physical distance from those outside your household, authorities emphasize.

Ferrer said that “we can’t stress enough that we have to, at this point, find our way to actually change the trajectory we’re on.”

“There really is no path forward to helping our hospitals unless we get the case numbers down. There just isn’t,” she said. “High case numbers automatically translate into high numbers of people that need hospital care.”

Times staff writers Iris Lee and Lila Seidman contributed to this report.