LA County coronavirus surge could lead to more restrictions, deaths, health officials warn

The continuing surge in COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles County will inevitably lead to more hospitalizations and potentially deaths, health officials warned Thursday, adding that if numbers persist upward, the county may be forced to impose more restrictions on public activity.

"If collectively we fail to stop the acceleration of new cases, we will have no choice but to look at additional actions," county public health director Barbara Ferrer said. "All around the country, elected officials and public health leaders are introducing new requirements to protect health care systems from becoming overwhelmed.

"We've been there before, just four months ago, and we worked really hard to get ourselves back to a place where our health was protected and our recovery journey could continue, and I know none of us wants to step back," she said. "Which leaves us with one option, and that is to make good choices that reflect the reality of living during a pandemic."

The admonition came on a day the county reported another 2,533 new cases of the coronavirus and Long Beach health officials added 45 more, lifting the cumulative total in the county to 330,495. Ferrer noted that on Oct. 3, the county was averaging 988 new cases per day, but as of last week, the average rose to 1,464.

"Simply put, this is more than a 33% increase in daily cases, and we have seen no recent signs of any decreases in our case numbers," she said.

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The county's recent testing-positivity rate is also on the rise, going from a seven-day daily average of 3.6% in early October to 4.4% last week, to 5.9% as of Thursday. Hospitalizations are also increasing, with 953 coronavirus patients as of Thursday, marking two straight days over 900.

The one metric that has not yet increased is the number of average deaths, which stands at 10, the "lowest since the early days of the pandemic," Ferrer said.

"Unfortunately the continued decrease in deaths is likely to not continue, since we know increases in cases and hospitalizations will actually influence the number of deaths we experience here in the county, and it is likely in the weeks to come that our numbers of deaths will increase as well," she said.

The county reported seven additional deaths on Thursday, although two of those fatalities were actually announced Wednesday by officials in Long Beach. The countywide cumulative death toll was 7,221 as of Thursday.

Ferrer warned again that the upcoming holidays will present elevated risk of virus transmission, particularly if people hold indoor gatherings with friends and family. She also warned that testing negative for the virus doesn't mean a gathering is safe to attend.

"We hear from people who tell us that they are going to go to party this weekend and now they're all going to go get tested today so that they'll be able to go to the party," Ferrer said. "That strategy doesn't work. When you test today and you are negative, you're only negative today. You're actions on the weekend really offer nobody around you any protections from the fact that you may have converted and become positive and are able to spread the virus."

The county has issued guidance for small gatherings, saying residents can get together with people in up to two other households. But those gatherings must be held outdoors with distancing and face coverings.

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Those rules apply to Thanksgiving dinners. The county is also discouraging people from traveling over the holiday, but those who do should investigate possible travel restrictions imposed at their destinations, and they should quarantine for 14 days when they return to Los Angeles County, Ferrer said.

The county remains stuck in the most restrictive tier of the state's four-tier economic-reopening guidelines, and Ferrer said that's unlikely to change for "the next few weeks.

"I don't think this is where any of us anticipated being as we head into the fall and winter," she said. "It isn't just that our recovery journey is stalled, it's also that we now have very tough choices in front of us as we head into Thanksgiving and the winter holidays."