LOS ANGELES — One in three Los Angeles County residents have been infected with the coronavirus, according to new estimates by county scientists, an astonishing sign of how rapidly the virus is spreading in the hard-hit region.
The estimate, based on scientific modeling, means officials believe more than 3 million of L.A. County’s 10 million residents have been infected with the coronavirus, including nearly 13,000 who have died.
That’s more than triple the cumulative number of coronavirus cases that have been confirmed by testing. Officials have long believed that testing only captures a certain percentage of those who are infected because many with the virus don’t show symptoms or suffer only mild symptoms.
The rising number of those infected has actually slowed the pace of coronavirus transmission, as the virus is increasingly coming into contact with people who have survived the infection and likely developed immunity.
“Unfortunately, we are still engaging in behaviors that facilitate spread of the virus, so it is still able to find plenty of susceptible people to infect,” said Dr. Roger Lewis, director of COVID-19 hospital demand modeling for the L.A. County Department of Health Services.
About 75% of L.A. County’s population will need to be immune to the virus through widespread vaccinations to dramatically slow its spread, Lewis estimated. Even if half of L.A. County’s population were immune, “and yet we decide to just pretend that we don’t have to take precautions, we will still have a very, very devastating pandemic.”
L.A. County averaged more than 15,000 new coronavirus cases a day over the past week — one of the highest such rates seen so far in the pandemic.
Surpassing 15,000 new coronavirus cases a day is a level that county officials have warned is a danger zone that may tip L.A. County’s overwhelmed hospitals into a worse catastrophe, straining resources and stretching staffing to a point that healthcare officials may have to choose which patients receive the attention of critical care nurses and respiratory therapists and access to ventilators and which patients receive palliative care.
Officials have been urging residents to take even more precautions to avoid getting sick.
When leaving home to access essential services, L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said, people should bring sanitizing wipes to disinfect their cellphones, car keys, work stations and door handles — anything they might touch that others also have touched. Health officials also suggested avoiding eating or drinking with anyone not in your household, washing or sanitizing your hands every hour if you’re around others, and taking a break from shopping.
They also issued a new recommendation: People who live with elderly residents or with residents who have an underlying medical condition and must go out of their households should wear a mask at home.
MORE THAN 1,600 DEAD IN A WEEK
More than 1,600 people in Los Angeles County have died from COVID-19 in the last week — a toll Ferrer called “tragic, upsetting and, frankly, overwhelming” and a sign of extraordinary danger as the possibly more contagious variant of the virus begins to spread in California.
Follow virus precautions “as if your life or the life of a loved one depends on it,” she said during a briefing Wednesday. “Because it just may.”
Over the weeklong period ending Wednesday, an average of 232 people died daily from COVID-19 countywide, according to data compiled by The Times. By comparison, the confirmed death toll in the Northridge earthquake — which struck the Southland almost exactly 27 years ago — was 57.
Just in the past seven days, the county set, then tied, its daily record for new coronavirus-related deaths, with 318.
The last week represents an acceleration, though not an aberration. A total of 2,904 L.A. County residents have died from COVID-19 over the last 14 days — a number that represents nearly one-fourth of the county’s cumulative death toll, which is just short of 13,000.
“Your infection could lead to dozens of other infections in just a matter of a few days, and someone along that path of transmission could very well die from COVID-19,” Ferrer said. “These are just not normal times, and so we can’t go out and just continue to act like nothing is going on.”
Ferrer did not rule out issuing additional restrictions.
“We are considering all options at this point,” she said Wednesday, without elaborating on what new orders might look like.
“We are very, very worried about the continued high number of cases here,” Ferrer said, “and I feel like there really is not a huge window here to try to get the surge under control.”
COVID-19 HOSPITALIZATIONS LEVEL OFF, BUT still AT A HIGH RATE
In L.A. County, new COVID-19 hospitalizations have leveled off for now, with even hints of a slight decline. But hospitals are still overstretched and hospitalizations are extraordinarily high; the ICU at Memorial Hospital of Gardena, for instance, is at 320% occupancy.
Over the past few weeks, an average of 700 to 850 new patients a day with coronavirus infections have been admitted to hospitals in L.A. County — a number that has pushed hospitals to prepare for the need to ration care.
“That’s three times higher than what was seen earlier in the pandemic,” said Dr. Christina Ghaly, the L.A. County director of health services.
Although the stable numbers are welcome news, they likely represent a stabilization in transmission that took place after Thanksgiving — as L.A. County and California officials issued stay-at-home orders — but before Christmas, Ghaly said.
It will take more time to see the effect of Christmas and New Year’s gatherings on hospitalizations, Ghaly said: “We just don’t have the information available at this point in time to determine whether or not that surge happened and, if so, how steep those numbers will climb.”
If there was a large increase in virus transmission over the holidays, “this would be absolutely devastating to our hospitals,” she said. Just sustaining the current levels of COVID-19 hospitalizations jeopardizes care for future COVID-19 patients and others who are experiencing non-COVID illnesses and emergencies such as strokes and heart attacks.
“For there to be any meaningful relief for healthcare providers, we need a swift and significant decline in hospitalizations for a period of one to two months at a minimum,” Ghaly said. “Please do not let the current number of daily hospitalizations feel normal to you just because it’s plateaued. ... It is unprecedented in the course of this pandemic in Los Angeles County, and everyone should continue to be concerned about what could happen if hospitalizations again start to increase.”
Even if transmission was relatively controlled over Christmas and New Year’s, with — on average — every infected person passing on the virus to one other person, Ghaly said, “we would still expect to see very high continued demand for hospital-based services with a continued limited supply of hospital beds — as well as in particular ICU beds — over the next four weeks.”
HOSPITAL MORGUES ARE OVERLOADED
Across Southern California, hospitals are overcrowded to an extent not seen in modern history. In Ventura County on Tuesday, there was a total of 1,002 hospitalized patients — 448 of them infected with the coronavirus. “I don’t know that we’ve ever had that many patients hospitalized at the same time in our county,” said Steve Carroll, Ventura County emergency medical services administrator.
“It does not seem to be getting better, unfortunately,” Carroll told the Ventura County Board of Supervisors. “All hospitals are overloaded at all times.”
The slight decrease in COVID-19 hospitalizations noted by state officials hasn’t happened in Ventura County, where they’re at an all-time highs, said Dr. Robert Levin, Ventura County health officer. “This week is critical. And I think we will know over the next five days or so by watching our hospital census where we’re headed with this.”
Some hospital morgues are full, and hospitals are seeing delays of up to three days in getting the dead out of their crypts and into a mortuary. In some cases, a mortuary can handle only four embalmings a day and quickly face a backup if more than four bodies a day are received. One mortuary said it normally dealt with seven to eight families a week; it’s now dealing with 50, Carroll said.
Ventura County has recorded a cumulative 388 COVID-19 deaths; nearly half of them, 189, were reported since mid-December.
“Many of us watched what happened in New York and Italy and saw horrific scenes. And we’re getting close,” said Ventura County Supervisor Carmen Ramirez.
GRANDPARENTS ARE DYING
In Riverside County, there have been days when 10 of its hospitals are using 100%, or more than its total licensed capacity, of beds, said Bruce Barton, Riverside County director of emergency management.
In Orange County, COVID-19 is ravaging families. Dr. Clayton Chau, director of the Orange County Health Care Agency, recounted the story of grandparents who were in the process of adopting their granddaughter, in the eighth grade, whose mother died of cancer a few years ago.
“They just died from COVID. Both of them,” Chau said at a Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, his voice breaking. “We need to do something fast in our community. It is not about just reopening our economy that is important. But it is about taking care of our vulnerable community. Our seniors are dying.”