LA County reports highest daily COVID-19 death total amid concerns of new variant

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Los Angeles County reported its highest single-day total of COVID-19 deaths Tuesday, attributing the spike in part to a backlog in reporting from the holiday weekend, with hundreds more fatalities likely to be confirmed in the coming days.

The county Department of Public Health confirmed a record-breaking 227 coronavirus-related fatalities Tuesday, pushing the county closer the grim 10,000-death mark. Long Beach, which has its own health department separate from the county, also reported a single-day high number of deaths, 22, but indicated the number reflects a two-day total dating back to Sunday.

Along with two more deaths reported by Pasadena's health department, the countywide cumulative death toll from the virus rose to 9,806.

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As Los Angeles County approaches the milestone of 10,000 COVID-19 deaths, the public health director announced a grim statistic: one person died in the county from the virus every 10 to 15 minutes over the past week.

County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Monday that officials were working to confirm more than 400 deaths likely attributable to the virus -- deaths that weren't initially tallied due to the holiday weekend and a Spectrum internet outage that impacted reporting. Some of those fatalities were included in Tuesday's county report, but DPH officials said the agency "anticipates confirming additional deaths due to the backlog of death reports over the next two to three days.''

The deaths -- averaging more than one every 15 minutes in the county -- are the result of a surge in cases that began in November and worsened dramatically after a spate of Thanksgiving holiday gatherings -- and will likely be exacerbated by Christmas and New Year's gatherings held in spite of health orders barring them.

Case numbers in the county have been surging, with the county reporting 12,979 more infections on Tuesday, Long Beach adding 476 and Pasadena announcing 101. Those cases raised the countywide cumulative total throughout the pandemic to 746,666.

The rising cases have translated into a dramatic surge in hospitalizations, with COVID-19 patients rapidly occupying the majority of available general care and intensive-care unit beds. The county on Tuesday reported 7,181 people hospitalized, with 20% of them in the ICU. But the state, which generally has more updated figures, put the county's hospitalization number at 7,415, including 1,496 in the ICU.

County officials said hospitalizations have increased nearly 1,000% since Halloween, when there were only 750 patients.

According to the county Department of Health Services, there were 716 total available hospital beds in the county as of Tuesday, including just 31 adult ICU beds.

California hospitals stretched to their limits as COVID cases soar
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Overwhelmed by a massive influx of COVID-19 patients, most hospitals in Southern California and throughout the state are being stretched to their limits.

The county has a total of about 2,500 licensed ICU beds, but with patient numbers soaring, hospitals last week surged to operate a daily average of 3,120 ICU beds -- 45% of them occupied by confirmed or suspected coronavirus patients. On average, the county had 29 available and staffed ICU beds on a daily basis last week.

Confirmed and suspected COVID-19 patients filled an average of 48% of non-ICU beds in the county last week, with hospitals staffing just more than 10,000 such beds across the county, averaging 282 available beds -- in a county of 10 million people -- on any given day.

"Our health care workers are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients and this current path of surging COVID-19 hospitalizations is not sustainable,'' Ferrer said in a statement Tuesday. Even if you believe your life isn't at risk, actions that defy public health guidance certainly put other lives in danger. We are each other's keepers. Instead of hosting or attending a party this New Year's Eve, choose to stay home and celebrate with only your household or to connect virtually with other family members and friends. Make ending this deadly surge part of your New Year's resolution.''

Despite Tuesday's confirmation that a new and more contagious variant of COVID-19 has been detected in Colorado, the strain has not yet been found in the Southland, but health experts said there's a good chance it's already here.

"I would argue that we do have a lot of those cases here in America, we just haven't them found it yet," said Dr. Anthony Cardillo, ER specialist and CEO of Mend Urgent Care. "We do believe that the vaccine does cover for this virus because it is not a whole new strain, it's one mutation in that docking protein that allows that virus to bind more rapidly in our cells and our bodies."

Colorado's confirmation of the new strain, which was first discovered in the United Kingdom, is the first detection of the variant in the United States. Colorado officials said the patient was a man in his 20s who had no recent history of traveling.

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Dr. Paul Offit, from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, on the growing concerns over the contagious new strain of coronavirus.

The new strain, known as B.1.1.7, is not thought to cause more severe illness than the original virus, but it is believed to be dramatically more contagious -- meaning it is far more easily transmitted from one person to the next.

Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Monday local health officials have tested a limited number of samples from COVID-positive patients, and "we have not found any evidence of the variant in that first group of tests that we ran.''

"That doesn't mean it's not here,'' Ferrer said. "It just means it didn't show up in the first round of testing.

"... For all of us in public health, because there is so much spread right now and so many people who are infected -- and we're not running all of the samples through this sort of gene sequencing -- it would be impossible for us to say with all certainty that the variant isn't here,'' she said. "And almost all of us, I think, agree that there's a high probability that the variant is here, although at this point it doesn't appear to be dominant, because if it was you might see it initially in the samples that are being run.

But Ferrer said even if the variant is in the county, it wouldn't change the infection-control measures that are already in place.

"I think whether the variant is here or it isn't here, the steps we need to take are exactly the same,'' she said. "Whether the variant is slightly more infectious than the virus as we're experiencing it now in the predominant strain we're seeing here in L.A. County, the steps to take are the same. And the urgency is the same.

"There is a lot of community spread, and that makes it easier for this virus to keep spreading,'' Ferrer said. "So we're all going to have to do everything we know how to do to contain the virus.''

The state on Tuesday officially extended a stay-at-home order affecting the 11-county Southern California region, including Los Angeles County. The order was triggered Dec. 6 when the region's ICU capacity dropped below 15%, and it is now estimated at 0%.

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County Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly said Monday the situation at hospitals "is truly dire,'' saying medical centers are "inundated with COVID patients.''

Hospital emergency departments are overwhelmed, Ghaly said, with medical centers on Sunday spending 83% of their operating hours diverting ambulances to other hospitals due to lack of space or staffing.

"There's many situations in which as many as 10 ambulances are waiting to offload patients, and those patients are being cared for and treated in the ambulances as if it's part of the emergency room bay,'' Ghaly said. "Hospitals are treating patients in other areas that are not typically used for patient care at all, not just not used for inpatient care. They're using places like conference rooms or gift shops to provide patient care.''

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At Southern California hospitals, designated teams will be tasked with difficult decisions regarding patient care if resources run scarce.

City News Service contributed to this report.
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