LA County Opens Vaccine Super Sites; Is New Virus Strain Raging Locally?

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - The COVID-19 death toll crossed the 14,000 mark in Los Angeles County today as fatality reports from the holiday weekend rolled in, while health officials ramped up vaccination efforts by opening five large-scale vaccine sites.

The newly opened vaccination centers are at Six Flags Magic Mountain, Cal State Northridge, the Pomona Fairplex, the L.A. County Office of Education in Downey and the Forum in Inglewood. They will operate in addition to the more than 75 smaller sites already operating, and the city-operated location at Dodger Stadium, which is billed as the largest-capacity vaccine site in the nation.

County officials also expanded access to the vaccine Tuesday, allowing all residents 65 and over to begin making vaccination appointments and start receiving the inoculations on Wednesday.

The vaccine efforts come at a critical stage of the county's fight against COVID-19, with transmission rates remaining high and the numbers of cases and deaths continuing to climb.

The county on Tuesday reported another 186 deaths due to the virus, pushing the overall death toll to 14,122.

Another 7,902 cases were also confirmed, while Long Beach health officials reported 863 more infections and Pasadena added 69, raising the overall total to 1,032,806.

Health officials noted that the county statistics were skewed due to reporting delays from the holiday weekend.

Hospitalization numbers continued to stabilize, with the state reporting 7,253 patients in the county, down slightly from 7,322 on Monday. The number has been dropping slowly but steadily over the past week, when patient totals topped 8,000, overwhelming medical centers.

The number of hospital patients includes 1,693 people in intensive care, also a slight drop from Monday, but still a dangerously elevated figure, given the county has only about 2,500 licensed ICU beds.

Health officials have warned in recent weeks that despite a leveling-off of hospital admissions, the numbers could rapidly climb again when people infected over the Christmas and New Year's holidays begin to get sick enough to require medical care.

Making matters potentially worse was news over the weekend that the county had confirmed the first local case of a variant strain of the virus that was first detected in the United Kingdom. That strain, known of B.1.1.7, is not considered more deadly, but it is far more contagious, passing easily from person to person and having the potential to spread rapidly among the population.

And on Monday night, officials at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center announced they have identified yet another strain of the virus, known as CAL.20C, which was detected in more than one-third of the COVID patients being treated at the hospital. The strain was also found in about one-fourth of samples from COVID patients across Southern California.

Cedars-Sinai officials said the CAL.20C strain is distinct from the UK variant. It's still unclear if the CAL.20C strain spreads more quickly, is deadlier or is resistant to current virus treatments. But Cedars researchers said the strain is partly responsible for the large surge in cases the county has experienced over the last two months. Hospital officials said the strain was virtually non-existent in the county in October, but by December it represented 36.4% of COVID cases at Cedars-Sinai and 24% of COVID samples collected across Southern California.

The strain has also been detected in patients in Northern California, New York, Washington, D.C., and abroad in Oceania, according to Cedars-Sinai.

Los Angeles County crossed the 1 million mark in cumulative cases during the pandemic over the weekend. Although that milestone represents about one-tenth of the county's overall population, modeling released last week estimated that as many as one-third of residents have actually been infected at some point, with many of them never knowing it but still capable of spreading the virus to others.

With at least 10% of COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalization, higher case numbers will translate into higher hospitalization numbers, and ultimately, more deaths.

Increasing fatalities due to the virus prompted a grim move on Sunday by Southland air-quality regulators, who lifted the cap on the number of bodies local crematories could cremate. Crematoriums normally operate under a limit designed to reduce the impact of the cremations on air quality.

Photo: Getty Images

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