LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- With Los Angeles County pushing closer to the milestone of 1 million coronavirus cases, health officials have announced plans to dramatically ramp up vaccinations by expanding the eligibility list and establishing five large sites capable of administering up to 5,000 vaccine doses daily.
All health care workers in the county can now be inoculated, which includes but is not limited to those who work in urgent care or primary care clinics, dental offices or pharmacies. Previously, only frontline workers in hospitals and nursing homes were allowed to get the shot.
Officials are looking to accelerate the rollout -- which has been considerably slow as cases continue to surge -- with the possibility of vaccines expiring if they're not distributed in time.
The county wants to vaccinate 500,000 health care workers by the end of January.
The five new vaccine distribution sites, expected to open across the county next week, will be in addition to the city-operated vaccination site being opened this week at Dodger Stadium, which had been the largest COVID-19 testing site in the nation.
The county already has dozens of vaccination sites across the area providing doses of the medication. The new large-capacity sites -- the locations of which were not released -- "will enable us to speed up vaccinations for frontline health care workers,'' county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Monday.
"These five sites, in addition to our private partner sites, will allow us to complete an additional 500,000 vaccinations among our health care workers by the end of January,'' she said.
If vaccinations are completed for the bulk of health care workers in the county by the end of the month, the next phase of the distribution effort is expected to begin in early February. That phase, known as 1B, would include people aged 75 and older and some categories of essential workers. By late March, the county hopes to begin phase 1C, which would include people 50 and over, or people older than age 16 with underlying health conditions that puts them at higher risk of severe illness.
The vaccination effort comes as the county and state continue to experience a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths -- with one person dying on average every eight minutes in the county and 10 people testing positive every minute.
Ferrer said the county is "quickly increasing our pace to reach the grim milestone of 1 million cases.''
With 12,617 new infections confirmed Monday, along with 122 announced by Pasadena health officials and 88 by Long Beach, the countywide total since the pandemic began stood at 932,908. The county also announced another 137 COVID-19 deaths on Monday, while Pasadena confirmed one additional fatality, raising the countywide death toll to 12,388.
Hospitals continue to be overrun with coronavirus patients, with only 650 available beds -- including 48 intensive-care unit beds -- available as of Monday at the 70 911-receiving'' medial centers. But officials expressed some casual optimism at a leveling-off of new hospital admissions in recent days.
According to the state, there were 7,926 COVID-19 patients in L.A. County hospitals as of Monday, including 1,724 in intensive care. Last week, the overall number topped 8,000. Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday that over the past two weeks, the number of people hospitalized increased 6% over the last 14 days, "among the smallest increases we've seen over a two-week period in some time.
"It's just a point of some optimism, a little bit of light,'' Newsom said, while also warning that another jump in hospitalizations is still possible given the recent winter holidays.
Los Angeles County Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly also noted that hospitalization numbers appear to have "stabilized'' following dramatic surges in recent weeks, but the overcrowding in hospitals still hasn't been alleviated. She noted that in the four county-operated hospitals, more than half of all admitted patients are being treated for COVID-19, and more than 75% of ICU patients have the virus. She said those numbers are similar for other hospitals countywide.
"We still have patients who are being boarded in the emergency departments and we still have our clinical care teams caring for more patients than what they would under normal circumstances,'' Ghaly said.
"... There remains staffing shortages countywide at all hospitals at health care facilities, and we are still very much in the midst of this deadly surge,'' she said. We're watching the data very carefully over the next couple of days, as this is the time we would anticipate beginning to see the surge in patients from the recent Christmas and New Year's holidays.''
County Supervisor Hilda Solis -- again urging residents to adhere to infection-control measures such as wearing masks and staying home as much as possible -- offered a grim reminder of the continuing severity of the pandemic, noting the pain of people who die from COVID-19 in a hospital, separated from loved ones.
"Dying from COVID in the hospital means dying alone,'' Solis said. "... Families are sharing their final goodbyes on tablets and mobile phones.''
Solis said she's heard stories from health care workers about such conversations, saying they often include children or younger relatives apologizing to parents or grandparents for bringing the virus into their homes.
"These apologies are some of the last words that loved ones will ever hear as they die alone,'' Solis said. Please don't let this be your family. Don't let this be your parents or grandparents.''
About 5 million people have been tested for COVID-19 in the county since the pandemic began, with 18% testing positive.
City News Service contributed to this report.