Los Angeles County reported the deadliest day of the pandemic to date on Wednesday, December 16, with 138 additional lives lost to the relentless new coronavirus. However, officials warned that the worst is likely to come.
The average daily deaths reported in LA County in the past week now surpass 60, a new high as a total of 8,568 people have lost their lives here so far. The county also reported 21,411 new cases on Wednesday, another record for daily reports. Aside from the 7,000 related to a reporting slowdown, the numbers were still up the previous high of 13,815 on Dec. 11.
New cases per day in the past week have now averaged more than 11,000 with an infection rate currently equal to about one in 80 people. Meanwhile, the number of beds available in the intensive care unit for treating patients in Southern California has fallen to its lowest ever level: 0.5%.
“The virus is widespread in all neighborhoods,” said Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer. “We have the most difficult road ahead of us so far.”
With every measure – in terms of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths – the Los Angeles coronavirus pandemic came off a cliff, propelled by what Ferrer called an “explosive and very deadly wave” on Wednesday.
A total of 4,864 people with COVID-19 have now been admitted to LA County hospitals, based on a state dashboard reporting a day earlier than the county at 4,656. With hospital admissions more than doubling in two and a half weeks, and with the daily number of new patients now exceeding 600, officials say there is a very real chance that the county’s health care system will soon become overwhelmed, possibly in less than two weeks.
To show how bad the situation has gotten, the graph showing a model for the expected need for new hospital beds went off the air as officials had to scale up to the new – and surprising – projections. Soon, the county would require 1,000 additional Intensive Care beds, in addition to the approximately 2,500 currently staffed.
“Within a few days, more than 5,000 patients will have COVID-19 and more than half of the intensive care beds will be occupied with COVID patients,” Ferrer said.
The county update did not include the latest figures from Long Beach and Pasadena, the city with its own health departments. Pasadena reported 135 new cases, out of a total of 5,070; the city’s death toll remained at 139. Four new fatalities increased Long Beach’s death toll to 306, while 1,109 new cases lifted the city’s total since the pandemic began to 23,082.
While the number is fluid, the county had about 900 beds available, including 100 ICU beds, although a state dashboard lists 1,331 available ICU beds as it takes peak capacity into account. Available beds in intensive care units across Southern California are down to 0.5%, according to the state’s surveillance system.
The Southern California region – which includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Diego, Imperial, Inyo, Mono, San Bernardino, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties – is covered by a state-imposed regional restraining order that bars gatherings of people from different households. The order can be canceled when the area rises about 15%, but that does not seem likely.
“Our hospitals are under siege and the end of our model is not yet in sight,” said Dr. Christina Ghaly, director of LA County Health Services. “I have not said this before because we have not been in this situation before, but the worst lies ahead as a hospital and emergency medical system do not provide the level of care we should all expect for ourselves and our loved ones. There is simply not enough staff. “
Dr. Denise Whitfield, an emergency room physician at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, said that while it might be difficult for some people to understand the seriousness of what was happening in the hospitals, she could attest to the tension that is currently taking place. Whitfield said the emergency department was full and ambulances had to wait a long time to receive patients.
“It is the first time that the level of care we can provide our patients has actually been threatened by this overcrowding and increase in COVID-19 patients,” Whitfield said.
Differences between low-income and minority communities widened again. Profits previously made during the pandemic to close certain gaps have now increased again. Latinos and blacks – along with those with lower incomes – were much more likely to contract COVID-19 and die. Latinos, with three times more cases of Caucasians and Asians, were twice as likely to die. Hospital admissions were even higher, with blacks not far behind.
“It reminds us that many of those most affected are black and tan and essential workers,” Ferrer said.
When hospitals reach high capacity, nurses and doctors have no choice but to increase the number of patients they treat at the same time, which can lead to poor outcomes. It’s not a choice anyone wants to make, but officials stressed on Wednesday that the trend is still reversible depending on what actions people are taking now.
“We learned a hard and painful lesson from our actions during Thanksgiving,” Ferrer said. “Please, let’s not make the same mistake as we enter the holidays.”
VACCINES INCREASE THE SWEEP
Amid Wednesday’s discouraging news, the light at the end of the tunnel got a little brighter as the newly arrived vaccine made its way to more front-line medical workers.
Pfizer’s long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine was distributed at Whittier Medical Hospital Center on Wednesday as efforts to inoculate millions of people in the county accelerated.
A queue of about 30 hospital employees waited early on Monday afternoon for admission. Over the next three to five days, 680 doses will be given to almost every health professional in the hospital.
“This will give us the upper hand,” predicted Dr. Lio Li. The radiant doctor proudly showed off his patch after receiving his injection.
Crews at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center also began to receive the vaccine.
Emergency doctor Dr. Medell Briggs-Malonson was the first person at Westwood Hospital to be vaccinated. After getting the Pfizer vaccination, she said they are urging everyone to get the shot when it becomes more widely available.
“As an emergency doctor, I’ve really seen what COVID does to people,” she said. “And even if it doesn’t kill you, many people have long-term effects from COVID, both with their brains, with their hearts, and with their lungs.”
At the end of the day, all nine locations in the county that are equipped with the ultra-cold storage facilities needed for the Pfizer medications are expected to have the vaccine, and the county is expected to receive nearly 83,000 doses. The vaccines will then be contracted out to 83 acute care hospitals across the country for administration to health professionals, who are at the top of the priority list to receive the shots.
The vaccine, which received federal approval for immediate use over the weekend, is said to be 95% effective at preventing the virus.
Spokesmen for the Pasadena-based Huntington Hospital and Arcadia Methodist Hospital both said they expect their first shipments of vaccine to arrive sometime this week, likely on Thursday. The vaccine would also arrive in Long Beach and South Bay hospitals on Thursday. Hospitals in the San Fernando Valley had similar schedules.
Officials at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center confirmed on Tuesday that Pfizer’s long-awaited vaccine had arrived at the hospital.
“The advent of the COVID-19 vaccine represents a powerful and positive change for our community after months of anxiety, exhaustion and illness,” said Dr. Jeff Smith, Cedars-Sinai’s chief operating officer. “To date, the vaccine has been the missing tool in our ever-expanding toolkit of treatments and prevention methods against the virus.”
Staff writer Mike Sprague and City News Service contributed to this report