LOS ANGELES - Warning that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is yet to come, Los Angeles County officials lashed out Monday at anti-mask protesters and other groups challenging health orders, saying they only need to look at overwhelmed local hospitals to see the deadly consequences of the virus.
"Our public health officials have one mission -- to safeguard the public's health," County Supervisor Hilda Solis said. "They are not the ones to blame. The virus is. Despite what protesters claim, this is not a hoax. Take a look at our hospitals where care now has to be rationed. And it will only get worse if we give into demands to reopen at a time when our cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to skyrocket.
"I'm sympathetic to the economic devastation this is causing ... but as I've said before, there will be no true economic recovery until the virus is gone."
The comments came following a weekend that saw anti-mask-wearing protesters storm through Westfield Century City mall and dozens of people gathering at a New Year's Eve concert outside a Valencia church.
Dr. Christina Ghaly, director of the county's Department of Health Services, offered a stern reminder that wearing a mask is about protecting other people from the virus and slowing its spread.
"For those people, I would remind you this isn't just about you," Ghaly said. "The facts are the facts and they are grounded in science. Wearing a mask will protect you, but even more so, it will protect those around you. You may not be worried about getting COVID-19, and you may only know people who
had a mild or asymptomatic course of the disease. You may think that you're young and healthy and strong and that you won't have a severe course. .... You may be lucky enough that that may continue to hold true for you or your family. But for some of you, this won't be how your future plays out. You will get sick. You may not recover at all. And if you do recover, you may have lasting consequences from this virus."
As for the weeks ahead, Ghaly warned that despite beginning a new year, the virus remains, and, "The worst is almost certainly still ahead."
The warnings came on the heels of a weekend that also saw the county top 800,000 infections since the pandemic began.
With 9,142 new infections reported Monday, the countywide total reached 827,498. The new cases reported Monday are believed to be an undercount, thanks to holiday weekend reporting lags and the closure of some testing sites. The county also reported 77 more deaths due to COVID-19 on Monday, lifting the countywide death toll to 10,850 since the start of the pandemic.
"We're likely to experience the worst conditions in January that we've faced the entire pandemic," County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said. "And that's hard to imagine. In slightly more than one month, we doubled the number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19, going from 400,000 cases on Nov. 30 to 800,000 on Jan. 2. It took us nine and a half months to get to the first 400,000 cases."
She noted that the current average of people testing positive for the virus in the county is now 21%. The cumulative positivity rate from throughout the pandemic is 16%.
The increased case numbers have translated to a continuing crunch on hospitals. The county on Monday reported 7,697 COVID patients in local hospitals, although the state estimated the figure at 7,898. Ferrer said that if current case trends continue, there will be more than 9,000 COVID patients hospitalized within two weeks.
As of Monday, the county reported a total of 577 available and staffed hospital beds, including only 20 adult intensive-care unit beds. As of late January, county hospitals were operating a total of about 3,000 ICU beds, averaging only 29 available and staffed beds on a daily basis. Hospitals in the county operated an average of about 10,000 non-ICU beds.
Ghaly noted that the current surge in hospitals still reflects cases resulting from Thanksgiving gatherings, with Christmas and New Year's cases not even materializing yet.
She said hospitals are continuing to struggle to find space for more patients, and ambulances continue waiting hours in emergency bays to offload patients. She said over the holiday weekend, roughly 90% of county hospitals were forced to divert ambulances to other facilities.
Amid the unfolding disaster, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is sending experts to help with the oxygen delivery systems at six of the county's older hospitals:
• Adventist Health White Memorial Hospital, Los Angeles;
• Emanate Health Queen of the Valley Hospital, West Covina;
• Mission Community Hospital, Panorama City;
• Beverly Community Hospital, Montebello;
• Lakewood Regional Medical Center, Lakewood; and
• PIH Health Hospital, Downey.
"By working to upgrade challenged oxygen delivery systems at these older hospitals we can improve the ability to deliver life sustaining medical care to those who need it," said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.
Also arriving in the county Monday was a team of California National Guard members who will assist the coroner's office, which has been inundated with bodies due to the surge in virus deaths -- with one person dying every 15 minutes in the county from the virus alone.