LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Hospitalization numbers continued to ease slightly in Los Angeles County today, although health officials warn that COVID-19 admissions could spike again in response to holiday gatherings and the potential for rapidly increasing infections from a highly contagious new variant of the virus.
The variant, first discovered in the United Kingdom, has not been officially identified yet in Los Angeles County. But Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer has warned the variant is likely already here and simply hasn't been detected in the relatively limited number of tests conducted in search of the new strain.
“According to the latest available science, the UK variant doesn't make people sicker, but it is more transmissible, meaning it can spread more easily,'' Ferrer said Wednesday. “... Current projections by the experts predict that if left unchecked, this variant could dominate locally by March.''
With the variant's ability to rapidly pass from person to person, it could quickly drive up infection numbers, inevitably leading to more hospitalizations and ultimately more deaths, Ferrer said. She said people need to continue taking all necessary precautions, while not ruling out the need for stricter regulations to control the spread.
“We should be prepared to do more if cases remain high,'' she said. “The work ahead requires us to take every action necessary to reduce transmission.''
According to estimates released Wednesday by the county Department of Health Services, the COVID-19 transmission rate -- the number of people a COVID patient infects with the virus -- is hovering at about 0.97. Any time the rate is at 1 or higher, cases are anticipated to increase.
The county's modeling also estimates that roughly 1 in every 115 residents who are not hospitalized or in quarantine are infected with the virus and capable of spreading it to others.
Perhaps more ominously, the county estimates that one-third of the county's 10 million residents have been infected with the virus at some point since the pandemic began. As of Wednesday, the county had officially confirmed only 959,156 infections through testing.
The number of people hospitalized due to the virus remains dramatically high, although the numbers have been stabilizing, and even dropping slightly, in recent days, offering some glimmer of hope that the surge in cases is easing.
State officials on Thursday reported a total of 7,715 people hospitalized in the county due to COVID-19, down from 7,906 on Wednesday and below the 8,000-plus patients reported most of last week. The number of patients in intensive-care unit beds also dropped, but not nearly as dramatically. The state reported 1,677 ICU patients being treated for COVID in the county Thursday, compared to 1,699 on Wednesday.
The county has a total of about 2,500 licensed ICU beds.
The county Department of Health Services on Thursday reported a total of 570 available non-ICU hospital beds, and just 42 available adult ICU beds. Last week, on average, 80% of ICU patients in the county were being treated for COVID-19, along with 54% of non-ICU patients.
With such large percentages of COVID patients in hospitals, the number of people dying from the virus has continued to surge. The county reported another 218 COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday, while Long Beach health officials announced 15 more deaths and Pasadena added two more, lifting the countywide death toll from the virus to 12,972.
County Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly on Wednesday urged people not to be fooled into complacency by the recent stabilization of hospital numbers.
“While the numbers have plateaued at this number just shy of 8000, they have leveled at a rate that is really not sustainable,'' Ghaly said. “This high plateau does not leave enough open beds to care for patients without COVID. And it does not still allow us to be prepared for an additional onslaught of patients that may present over the next couple of weeks in a potential post-holiday surge.''
Ghaly said the county's hospitals have not yet begun to see the results of gatherings and virus transmission that likely occurred over the Christmas and New Year holidays.
“Even if the slight decline continues, we are nowhere near being in the clear in the L.A. County hospital system,'' she said. “Hospitals cannot sustain the high level of beds that are occupied with COVID patients.''
She added, “For there to be any meaningful relief for health care providers, we need a swift and significant decline in hospitalizations for a period of one to two months. Please do not let this current number of daily hospitalizations feel normal to you just because it's plateaued.''
Ferrer noted that outbreaks at workplaces across the county have been contributing to the surge in cases.
“We have a problem with COVID-19 transmission at worksites across the entire county,'' she said. “As the percentage of people who are positive with COVID-19 increases, there is simply a much larger pool of infected people walking around, often without symptoms, that now expose a greater and greater percentage of people to the virus.''
She said that in one month's time, outbreaks at general worksites -- including warehouses, manufacturing facilities and logistics companies -- increased from an average of nine per week to 44 per week. Schools and day care facilities also saw a tripling of outbreaks. Ferrer noted that most of them were “small and well contained,'' but they involved “dozens of staff and a small number of students.''
Ferrer noted that average daily new cases in the county have risen by 1,092% since November, average daily deaths are up 1,133% and hospitalizations are up 875%.
Photo: Getty Images