LOS ANGELES - A mutant variant of the coronavirus that appears to be more contagious has been found in Southern California, where the state’s most populous county recorded more than 10,000 deaths and authorities warned they will be patrolling streets to shut down large New Year’s Eve gatherings that could spread the infection.
Los Angeles County reached a "terrible milestone" with 274 additional deaths in 24 hours for a record toll of 10,056 deaths, Los Angeles County Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer announced Wednesday.
The COVID-19 daily death toll over 14 days has averaged about 150 people, or "about equal to the number of deaths from all other causes, which is about 170," said Ferrer. "Most heartbreaking is that if we had done a better job reducing transmission of the virus, many of these deaths would not have happened."
To symbolize the fact that one person dies of COVID-19 complications every ten minutes and to encourage people to stay home, the Los Angeles Department of Public Health tweeted every ten minutes on Thursday.
The county, which has had about 40% of the state’s virus deaths, is one of nearly two dozen in Southern California and the agricultural San Joaquin Valley area where hospital intensive care units have technically run out of room, although ICU patients are being placed in other hospital areas under "surge" procedures.
Meanwhile, California became the second state after Colorado to report finding a new strain of the virus that was first confirmed in the United Kingdom.
The patient, who developed symptoms on Dec. 27, is a 30-year-old San Diego County man who didn’t have any history of travel, which could indicate that someone else already had brought the new strain into the state, officials said.
It is common for viruses to undergo minor changes as they reproduce and move through a population. Scientists have found no evidence that the variant is more lethal or causes more severe illness, and they believe the vaccines now being dispensed will be effective against it. But the fear is that mutations at some point will become significant enough to defeat the vaccines.
Also, a faster-spreading virus could swamp hospitals with seriously ill patients.
In L.A. County, more than 1 in 4 COVID-19 patients sent to hospitals are winding up in ICUs, according to county figures. The struggle to find places for the most seriously ill means "it’s not just the virus that’s proving fatal, but also the nightmare scenario of Angelenos dying because they cannot get the appropriate care from overwhelmed ICUs," Ferrer said.
The cases triggered a host of questions about how the version circulating in England arrived in the U.S. and whether it is too late to stop it now, with top experts saying it is probably already spreading elsewhere in the United States.
Public health officials also began warning of stricter enforcement of stay-home orders that aim to reduce COVID-19 spread by keeping people from mingling outside of their households. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said hospitalizations and deaths linked to Christmas gatherings may show up in two or three weeks because of the infection’s lag time, and any New Year’s Eve gatherings could start to overwhelm hospitals later in January in a third virus surge.
"If you mix and mingle with people outside your household, it’s likely medical care will not be available when it’s needed in a few weeks," Garcetti said. "We will feel it in our homes, in our ICU units, and in our morgues."
Garcetti said police will be out enforcing public health rules that prohibit large gatherings and the city had disconnected utilities on Tuesday at a "chronic party house" in the Hollywood Hills.
Hours after the new COVID-19 variant was detected Wednesday, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria signed an executive order directing stricter enforcement of state and local public health rules.
Gloria said he had asked police and the city attorney to pursue fines "and potentially other enforcement actions" against those who are "blatantly and egregiously" defying health orders.
Gloria praised residents who follow the rules, stay home as much as possible and wear masks when outside.
"Many have sacrificed their social lives for the greater good. Others have treated this with a sickening level of apathy as their neighbors died," he said.
Thompson reported from Sacramento.