LOS ANGELES - The number of COVID-19-positive patients in Los Angeles County surged well above the 2,000 mark Tuesday amid a surge in infections that has seen daily case numbers skyrocket over the past two weeks.
According to state figures, there were 2,240 COVID-positive patients in county hospitals as of Tuesday, a jump from 1,994 on Monday. Of those patients, 303 were being treated in intensive care, an increase from 278 a day earlier.
The hospitalization number is the highest it has been since last February in the midst of another winter COVID surge. Due to rising patient numbers, the county Department of Public Health on Monday urged residents to avoid visiting hospital emergency rooms unless they urgently need emergency care.
"Residents should not be visiting the emergency department solely to get a COVID test or for minor complaints that could be resolved through their primary care physician," according to the county.
Health officials have noted throughout the pandemic that many of the COVID-positive patients at hospitals were admitted for reasons other than the virus, and only learned they were infected when they were tested upon arrival. Dr. Christina Ghaly, the county's health services director, told the Los Angeles Times that about two-thirds of the COVID-positive patients at the four county-operated hospitals were admitted for something other than COVID.
The rising patient numbers, however, have led to concerns about the stability of the hospital system, with authorities saying staffing issues will limit hospitals' ability to rapidly expand patient capacity they way they did last winter, when COVID-positive patient numbers topped 8,000.
County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer insisted Tuesday that people being treated for COVID in intensive care units are overwhelmingly unvaccinated. She against said statistics show that even though vaccinated people can become infected, they are far less likely to become seriously ill. According to the county, for the week of Dec. 15-28, unvaccinated people were 21 times more likely to wind up in an ICU than vaccinated people.
"Even as transmission surges, we are seeing that vaccines are doing what they were intended to do, which is protect people from getting severely ill due to COVID," Ferrer said in a statement. "We are grateful to the 80% of eligible residents who have already received at least one dose of vaccine -- and we hope that the almost 2 million people who have yet to be vaccinated take time to talk with their health care provider to receive additional information about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines.
"Choosing not to take the vaccine during this explosive winter surge is very risky since so many of those ill with COVID in the intensive care units at hospitals are unvaccinated, and tragically, some of these individuals will not survive," she said.
The county Department of Public Health reported Monday that the number of pediatric COVID patients in hospitals -- while still relatively small -- increased by nearly 190% from Dec. 4-25, with children under 4 seeing the biggest pediatric increase.
Although current figures were not immediately available, county officials told City News Service last week that on Dec. 2, there were eight pediatric patients hospitalized with COVID in the county, but that number jumped to 21 on Dec. 23.
The county issued revised guidelines late last week for schools, requiring teachers and staff to wear upgraded surgical-grade masks, while also requiring mask-wearing outdoors for students when physical distancing isn't possible. Dozens of school districts resumed in-person classes Monday, while the Los Angeles Unified School District will return next week.
The LAUSD is requiring all students and staff to be tested before in-person classes resume Jan. 11.
The county indicated it will be helping to distribute at-home test kits to students being made available by the state. Gov. Gavin Newsom previously said 6 million at-home kits would be distributed to every student in the state, but delivery of those kits has been slower than originally planned, with some districts still not receiving any of them.
With the highly transmissible Omicron variant of COVID-19 fueling spread of the virus, the county's case numbers have been skyrocketing over the past week. The county reported nearly 45,000 new cases over the weekend, following a daily record high of 27,091 new infections on Friday.
The county on Tuesday reported 24 more COVID deaths, bringing the overall death toll to 27,671. Another 21,790 cases were also confirmed, giving the county a cumulative total from throughout the pandemic of 1,780,154.
The rolling seven-day average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was 22.5% as of Monday. That rate was below 1% in November.
Health officials continued to urge residents to curtail higher-risk activities, including indoor activities where individuals are unmasked for long periods of time, as well as crowded outdoor events.
"The days ahead will be extraordinarily challenging for all us as we face extraordinarily high case numbers reflecting widespread transmission of the virus. In order to make sure that people are able to work and attend school, we all need to act responsibly," Ferrer said late last week.
She also noted that overall, COVID death rates have remained relatively flat in the county, despite the dramatic surge in infections, but she said that could change.
"Deaths fortunately remain low and they haven't changed, but this is because we're only about a week out from when our hospitalizations started rising," she said.
Officials have said about 90% of the COVID deaths during the pandemic occurred in people who had underlying health conditions. The most common conditions are hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. Of the 24 deaths reported on Tuesday, 20 had underlying health conditions.
Tune in to FOX 11 Los Angeles for the latest Southern California news.