COVID hospital numbers stabilize, but LA County officials say spikes is still possible

Los Angeles, CA - January 07: A nurse Cherry Costales, center, prépares Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at St. John's Well Child & Family Center on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Hospitalization numbers continued to ease slightly in Los Angeles County, although health officials warn that COVID-19 admissions could spike again in response to holiday gatherings.

Health officials are also worried about the potential for rapidly increasing infections from a highly contagious new variant of the virus.

The variant, first discovered in the United Kingdom, has not been officially identified yet in Los Angeles County. But Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer has warned the variant is likely already here and simply hasn't been detected in the relatively limited number of tests conducted in search of the new strain.

"According to the latest available science, the UK variant doesn't make people sicker, but it is more transmissible, meaning it can spread more easily,'' Ferrer said. "... Current projections by the experts predict that if left unchecked, this variant could dominate locally by March.''

With the variant's ability to rapidly pass from person to person, it could quickly drive up infection numbers, inevitably leading to more hospitalizations and ultimately more deaths, Ferrer said. She said people need to continue taking all necessary precautions, while not ruling out the need for stricter regulations to control the spread.

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"We should be prepared to do more if cases remain high,'' she said. "The work ahead requires us to take every action necessary to reduce transmission.''

According to estimates released Wednesday by the county Department of Health Services, the COVID-19 transmission rate -- the number of people a COVID patient infects with the virus -- is hovering at about 0.97. Any time the rate is at 1 or higher, cases are anticipated to increase.

The county's modeling also estimates that roughly 1 in every 115 residents who are not hospitalized or in quarantine are infected with the virus and capable of spreading it to others.

Perhaps more ominously, the county estimates that one-third of the county's 10 million residents have been infected with the virus at some point since the pandemic began. As of Wednesday, the county had officially confirmed only 959,156 infections through testing.

The number of people hospitalized due to the virus remains dramatically high, although the numbers have been stabilizing, and even dropping slightly, in recent days, offering some glimmer of hope that the surge in cases is easing.

RELATED: Stay up to date on all coronavirus-related information

Worksite COVID-19 outbreaks soar as virus surge continues in LA County

State officials on Thursday reported a total of 7,715 people hospitalized in the county due to COVID-19, down from 7,906 on Wednesday and below the 8,000-plus patients reported most of last week. The number of patients in intensive-care unit beds also dropped, but not nearly as dramatically. The state reported 1,677 ICU patients being treated for COVID in the county Thursday, compared to 1,699 on Wednesday.

The county has a total of about 2,500 licensed ICU beds. The county Department of Health Services on Thursday reported a total of 570 available non-ICU hospital beds, and just 42 available adult ICU beds.

Last week, on average, 80% of ICU patients in the county were being treated for
COVID-19, along with 54% of non-ICU patients.

With such large percentages of COVID patients in hospitals, the number of people dying from the virus has continued to surge. The county reported another 218 COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday, while Long Beach health officials
announced 15 more deaths and Pasadena added two more, lifting the countywide death toll from the virus to 12,972.

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