LA County continues seeing elevated COVID cases; ICU space jeopardized

Left unabated, the surge of COVID-19 cases ravaging Los Angeles County could threaten the availability of intensive-careunit beds by Christmas, health officials warned Wednesday as they again pleaded for public adherence to infection-control measures.  

"Based on current modeling, unless there has been and continues to be changed in community transmission, we do anticipate that we will have a shortage of ICU beds over the next four weeks," county Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly said.

"Hospitals will have to take substantive action to meet the need for hospital and particularly ICU-level care."

Ghaly said that action could potentially lead to changes in patient-to-staff ratios, meaning hospital staff will be asked to care for more patients than usual.  

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"This is not an ideal situation and can lead to sub-optimal outcomes for patients, but it is an important last option that is available to hospitals that are facing a high volume of patients," Ghaly said.  

Ghaly noted that hospitals can always add physical beds. But finding people to staff those beds and treat the patients in them is the challenge.  

"What matters is a hospital's practical ability to take care of the patients that come in the door," she said. "And that requires not just a bed, but more importantly it requires people, it requires staff, it requires supplies and equipment."

The county on Wednesday reported that 2,439 people are hospitalized due to the coronavirus, the highest level seen so far during the pandemic. Ghaly said hospitals are averaging nearly 350 new COVID admissions daily, up from about 300 last week.  

The county's overall hospital bed capacity fluctuates constantly based on available staffing and space, but as of Wednesday, the county had about 963 available beds. ICU space was tighter, with about 122 available beds.  

Health officials also announced another 5,987 coronavirus cases, down from the record-setting 7,593 cases reported on Tuesday but still well above the daily levels seen a month ago.

Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the average daily average of new cases jumped by 225% during the first three weeks of November, and the numbers are now even dramatically higher.  

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

The new cases announced Wednesday lifted the county's cumulative total through the pandemic to 414,185.  

The county also announced another 40 coronavirus-related deaths, although two of those fatalities were announced Tuesday by health officials in Long Beach. The countywide death toll due to COVID-19 stood at 7,740 as of Wednesday.  

Ferrer said the county is also now beginning to see a sharp increase in deaths due to the virus, with the daily average number rising 92% during a two-week period in November, with the average continuing to rise.

She said the increase in deaths is a natural result of the spike in cases and hospitalizations.  

"The virus is relentless," Ferrer said. "It will continue to be relentless until we can vaccinate the millions of residents and workers that call L.A. County their home. And while we are months away from completing vaccinations of all, there is a bright light at the end of this very dark tunnel.

But we're just not there yet. We're now at the worst point we've experienced thus far in the pandemic. "So I ask everyone to take every single precaution to protect yourself and those around you. Please commit today and through the next few months to be part of the solution to this terrible pandemic."

Ghaly said the county in the next few days will introduce a pilot at-home testing program "designed to reduce COVID-19 spread throughout the holiday season."

"Individuals will be able to have test specimen kits mailed to their home where they can self-swab and mail the sample back to the lab," she said.  

The program will be offered to people who are showing symptoms of COVID, those who have had confirmed or suspected contact with an infected person and seniors or disabled residents who may be unable to reach a traditional testing site.

Details on the program are expected to be provided on the county's website.  

Despite the continued rise in cases, Ghaly noted that the estimated transmission rate of the virus -- the estimated number of people an infected person passes the virus to -- decreased over the past week from 1.26 to 1.14. The county estimates now that one in every 200 county residents is infectious with the virus, not including those who are hospitalized or in isolation.

That estimate is down from one in every 145 last week.  

Ghaly said she couldn't pinpoint a specific reason for the slight drop in the transmission rate, but said the fact that it remains above 1.0 means the county will continue to see the spread of the virus.  

Ferrer warned that the recent case statistics continue to paint a dire picture of the pandemic.  

"We're seeing terrifying increases in numbers in L.A. County that can only be turned around if everyone -- businesses and individuals --carefully use the tools we have to slow the spread," she said."

There are no activities where people shouldn't be wearing a face covering if they're outside their homes except for swimming. Everywhere people go, they should be able to keep at least six feet away from others and there should be no crowding."