LOS ANGELES - COVID-19 fatalities continue to climb in Los Angeles County, with the cumulative death toll crossing the 16,000 mark.
This happening as the region experiences the inevitable end result of a surge in infections that continues to fill hospital intensive-care units.
Health officials have warned that the death toll will likely rise sharply for the rest of the month, even as case numbers and hospital admissions continue to fall. Deaths are considered a lagging indicator, meaning they naturally follow increases in hospitalizations, and early January saw daily hospital populations top 8,000.
The county reported another 213 deaths on Thursday, although 18 of those fatalities were actually announced Wednesday by health officials in Long Beach and Pasadena. Long Beach added 15 more deaths Thursday afternoon, while Pasadena reported five more. The new deaths pushed the overall death toll to 16,127.
The Department of Public Health also announced another 6,592 new COVID infections, while Long Beach added 414 and Pasadena 56. increasing the overall number since the pandemic began to 1,098,411.
Daily infection numbers have been trending downward over the past two weeks, following a surge that saw the county regularly reporting well over 10,000 cases. Even better news is the continuing downward trend in hospitalization numbers. According to state figures, there were 5,855 people hospitalized due to COVID in the county as of Thursday, including 1,503 in intensive care. That marks a dramatic drop from the 8,000-plus patients reported earlier in January.
But while the numbers have improved, they still remain dramatically high. Dr. Christina Ghaly, the county's health services director, noted this week that while new COVID hospital admissions have dropped to about 500 per day from the recent high of about 700 per day, the current rate is still double that seen in the virus surge that occurred last summer.
With numbers trending downward, the state this week lifted a regional stay-at-home order, allowing businesses such as barbershops and nail salons to reopen with limited capacity. Los Angeles County will allow restaurants to resume outdoor dining beginning Friday, albeit with strict infection-control requirements.
Full details of those requirements weren't immediately made public, but will be included in a revised county Health Officer Order expected to be released either Thursday night or Friday morning.
The county previously limited restaurants to 50% of their outdoor capacity, while requiring servers to wear masks and face shields, and mandating that tables be adequately spaced to ensure social distancing. The city of Long Beach health department has already cleared outdoor dining to resume with similar restrictions, along with a recommendation that only members of the same household dine out together.
The Public Health Director on Thursday reiterated her call for residents and business owners to strictly adhere to all infection-control measures, particularly as more businesses open and more people interact in public.
"To continue to drive down transmission, we all must commit to taking the actions that work to slow COVID-19 spread,'' Ferrer said in a statement. "When more sectors re-open the risk of COVID-19 transmission increases, because people are interacting more with non-household members. In order to avoid re-openings resulting in increases in cases, businesses and individuals need to be more diligent, not less, in following public health measures.
"We have a way to go before our hospitals are not stressed and fewer people die each day. Staying on a recovery journey is only possible if we all play by the rules,'' she said.
Ferrer said notices were being sent this week to all reopening businesses to remind them of the restrictions for various sectors, most involving capacity limits, face coverings and sanitation procedures. She also issued a warning to residents to limit gatherings, specifically citing the upcoming Super Bowl, reminding that past sporting events and celebrations during the Dodgers and Lakers championship runs contributed to spiking infections.
"We know that Super Bowl Sunday is coming up, and we can't repeat the mistakes of the past,'' she said. "It will be tragic if the Super Bowl becomes a super-spreader of coronavirus.''
The county's COVID-19 transmission rate -- reflecting the average number of people a COVID patient infects with the virus -- also continues to decline, estimated Wednesday at 0.85, down from 0.94 last week. Keeping that number below 1.0 is considered critical to slowing the spread of the virus.
Ferrer said allocations of COVID-19 vaccine continue to lag behind demand, with the county expecting to receive roughly 188,000 doses next week. Many of those, however, will be needed to administer second shots to people who have already received the first dose of the two-dose regimen.
As of the end of last week, the county had received a total of 853,650 doses. It received an estimated 143,900 doses this week, pushing the total to nearly 1 million.
Vaccination appointments can be booked online at vaccinatelacounty.com or by calling 833-530-0473 between 8 a.m. and 8:30 p.m., but appointments at county sites are largely filled through the weekend.