LOS ANGELES - The number of COVID-positive patients in Los Angeles County hospitals topped the 4,000 mark Thursday as the highly contagious Omicron variant continued to fuel a winter surge in infections.
According to state figures, there were 4,175 COVID-19-positive patients in county hospitals as of Thursday, with 586 of them being treated in intensive care. That's up from 3,912 total patients and 536 in the ICU on Wednesday.
The hospital number is the highest it has been since early February 2021.
County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Thursday the rise in COVID patients is pushing the county's overall hospital patient population to levels rivaling those during last winter's case surge. She said the daily overall patient census -- both COVID and non-COVID -- is about 15,000 in the county, close to last winter's peak of 16,500.
She also noted that rising hospitalizations are a natural consequence of rising case numbers, as are deaths, which are likely to keep increasing, even after infection figures begin declining.
"And while it's reassuring that much of the scientific evidence to date suggests that Omicron causes milder illness for many people, particularly those vaccinated and boosted, we still have no idea what percent of those recently infected with Omicron will experience long COVID, or the likelihood of children infected with Omicron developing MIS-C after their initial infection," Ferrer said, referring to the inflammatory syndrome that occurs in some children.
"Given this uncertainty, it remains prudent to continue to take all the protections possible to minimize your exposure to this highly infectious variant," she said.
On Thursday, the county reported 45 new COVID-related deaths, continuing a disturbing upward trend. A total of 39 deaths were reported Wednesday, the highest number since September. All of the deaths reported Wednesday occurred this month, likely reflecting an increase associated with the higher December case and hospitalization numbers.
The county also continued seeing disturbingly high numbers of new infections, with 45,076 new cases reported Thursday.
To date, the county has reported 27,895 COVID-related deaths and 2,131,523 cases since the pandemic began.
Thursday's rolling daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was 20.8%.
Ferrer again urged residents to avoid dangerous activities in the coming weeks, particularly those that are indoors and involve mingling with unvaccinated or higher-risk people. She also stressed that while the Omicron variant is easily capable of infecting vaccinated people, the shots are still proving to be effective in preventing infected people from winding up hospitalized.
"While we have tools that help, there is growing frustration over the seemingly endless changes in guidance, the short supply of tests and the reality that those vaccinated and boosted may also become infected," Ferrer said. "Since this is an accurate assessment of our current reality, I think we'll need to remind ourselves that we've survived similar challenges multiple times over the past two years.
"And while it's not where we had all hoped to be at this moment in time, we're going to need to find our reserves and continue to do our very best to slow the spread," she said. "It is way too risky for too many people to not continue to take precautions and to make those strategic decisions that minimize unnecessary exposures. We need our schools and workplaces to remain open, and this is most possible if we continue to work together and take sensible precautions."
She called on residents to get vaccinated and obtain booster shots; wear upgraded masks such as N95, KN95 or KF94 varieties; and get tested, saying the county dramatically expanded testing availability after shortages two weeks ago that led to long lines at some test centers.
As of Sunday, 80% of eligible county residents aged 5 and up have received at least one vaccine dose, and 72% are fully vaccinated. Of the county's overall population of 10.3 million people, 76% have one dose, and 68% are fully vaccinated.
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