LOS ANGELES - Marking the worst point of the COVID-19 pandemic, but warning of even more devastating times ahead, Los Angeles County health officials Wednesday reported record-shattering numbers of virus deaths, cases and hospitalizations that have the emergency medical system "under siege."
Los Angeles County reported a whopping 22,422 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, while attributing 7,000 of those cases to a backlog from a reporting lab. LA County initially reported 21,411 new cases before updating the numbers later Wednesday night.
"These are nonetheless extraordinary numbers, and they represent transmission that continues to be out of control," said LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.
The new cases lifted the countywide cumulative total from throughout the pandemic to 539,079.
As a result of the influx in COVID-19 infection rates, "we will have an increase in deaths in the days and weeks to come," warned Dr. Christina Ghaly, the county's health services director.
The county also reported the highest amount of deaths in a single day since the start of the pandemic, 138 including the seven deaths reported in Pasadena. The new deaths lifted the countywide cumulative total to 8,568.
Ferrer said average daily deaths from COVID-19 in the county have spiked up 267% since Nov. 9, reaching 44 per day as of last week, and likely even higher this week given the recent rising death figures.
"Every hour, on average, two of our neighbors, family members and friends are dying from COVID-19," said Ferrer.
"Unless we remain more vigilant and more diligent through the holidays and beyond, we will not be able to stop the surge and provide essential relief to our hospitals and our healthcare workers," she added.
Also still on the rise were hospitalizations, with the county reporting a total of 4,656 people admitted with COVID-19, an increase of roughly 400 from Monday.
Increasing hospitalizations have become a growing concern, particularly as they affect ICU beds.
"I want to be very clear, our hospitals are under siege, and our models show no end in sight," Ghaly said. "The worst is still before us."
Ghaly said there are currently 916 total available hospital beds in the county, 102 of which are ICU beds. She says the county now estimates one of every 80 residents who aren't hospitalized or quarantined are infected with COVID-19 and capable of infecting others.
"Today in Los Angeles County, let me be clear, we have a problem and at this point, all our hospital systems can do is brace for the days and weeks to come," Ghaly said.
She said the county is currently averaging 600 new COVID-19 hospital admissions every day, and that number could potentially reach 1,350 per day by the end of the month. She added that the demand for ICU beds could soon exceed -- by 1,000 patients or more -- the county's entire licensed ICU bed capacity of about 2,500.
Since overall hospital space is based not on the number of physical beds, but on available staffing to treat patients, the county's total number of beds can dramatically change daily.
Gov. Gavin Newsom noted Tuesday that the strain on hospital staffing across California prompted the state to temporarily lower the required staffing requirements in ICU units, from the normal one staffer for every two patients, down to one staffer for every three patients. The state also amended its quarantine requirements for health care workers exposed to the virus, lowering the mandate to just seven days, assuming the worker tests negative for the virus on day five or later of the quarantine.
Dwindling ICU capacity prompted the state to impose a regional stay-at-home order for the 11-county Southern California region earlier this month. The order was triggered when overall ICU capacity dropped below 15%. As of Wednesday, the state's estimated ICU capacity for the region -- adjusted based on the percentage of current COVID-19 versus non-COVID-19 ICU patients -- dropped to 0.5%.
"There is simply a limit to the number of people who can safely receive intensive care services in our hospitals at any one time, even after everything has been done to expand the capacity and expand the ICUs," Ghaly said, stressing that hospital staffing cannot keep up with the projected patient demand.
Ghaly issued a warning for residents across the county who continue to resist public health protocols such as staying home, wearing masks and practicing physical distancing.
"If you don't do everything possible to minimize spread (of the virus), then you are contributing to the spread and prolonging the amount of time in which our hospitals have more patients ... than they an safely handle," she said. "The consequences of this will affect anyone and everyone who needs hospital-level care. It's not just those with COVID. It will impact people who have a heart attack or a stroke and need services. Those who are in a car accident and need surgery. Those who have newly diagnosed cancer and need immediately chemotherapy in an in-patient setting."
Ghaly and Ferrer both issued pleas for residents to re-think holiday plans that involve travel or gatherings with friends and family from different households. Ferrer noted that the current county surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths is a direct result of people ignoring health warnings over the Thanksgiving holiday, and warned that piling a Christmas surge on top of that will be catastrophic for the hospital system.
"We have learned a hard and painful lesson from our actions over Thanksgiving," Ferrer said. "Please, let's not repeat the same mistakes as we move into our next holiday season."
CNS contributed to this report.