LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Los Angeles County reported 8,891 new cases of COVID-19 and seven additional deaths associated with the virus in its latest data in numbers that likely reflect reporting delays over the holiday and the weekend.
Also Sunday, the number of county residents hospitalized with the coronavirus increased to 904, up from 849 the previous day, according to the latest state figures. Of those patients, 188 were in intensive care, up one from Saturday. The number of hospitalized COVID patients has been rising in recent weeks, after falling as low as 551 in November.
The latest figures come amid a surge in reported cases that has the county's top health official warning that infections could reach near-record levels by the end of the year.
Fueled by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, the average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus rose to 15% as of Friday, more than triple the county's rate from a week ago, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer warned Wednesday that if infections continue such a dramatic rise, the daily case number could top 20,000 by the end of the year, reaching the highest level of the pandemic.
Ferrer said the county is not immediately considering a return to lockdown or other severe restrictions on public activity, but it will depend on the actions residents take to slow spread of the virus.
``I've always been transparent and honest that with a variant such as Omicron and potentially other variants that could happen in the future, every single option has to be on the table,'' she said. ``Every single tool we have has to be available for us to protect people's lives and livelihood and ... avoid overwhelming the hospital system.
``... I think if we can all do this, all of us, every single person, commit to celebrating with as much safety as possible, which may mean you're changing up some of your plans, we're going to be OK,'' she said.
Ferrer has credited COVID vaccines for preventing infected people from becoming seriously ill and creating a burden on health care workers similar to last winter's surge, which saw thousands of COVID patients in county hospitals. But deaths and hospitalizations are considered trailing indicators, so those numbers could still be in for a substantial spike in the coming weeks.
Ferrer said the vast majority of people being hospitalized due to the virus are unvaccinated, insisting that hospitalization numbers for vaccinated residents have remained low and flat since the shots became available. According to county figures, the hospitalization rate for unvaccinated people was 25 per 100,000 residents as of Wednesday, compared to just 1 per 100,000 for the vaccinated.
Meanwhile, the health department said Friday that it was expanding access to free COVID testing amid greater demand around the holidays.
``Demand for COVID-19 testing is steadily increasing as county residents rush to get tested before gathering with loved ones and as a direct result of LA County's surge in new cases,'' officials said.
Effective Friday, the changes include:
-- Extended hours of operation at sites across Los Angeles County;
-- Additional week and weekend dates;
-- Additional mobile testing units in hard-hit areas;
-- Re-launch of Holiday Home Test Collection Program with new guidelines to reach more people and make it easier to get tested. The link is at https://covid19.lacounty.gov/hometest.
Any county resident who is symptomatic or believes they were exposed to COVID-19 can order a home testing kit, which require swab collection to be mailed back for PCR test result.
The county has logged 1,616,033 cases of COVID-19 and 27,546 fatalities associated with the virus since the pandemic began. Officials say about 90% of the deaths occurred in people who had underlying health conditions. The most common conditions are hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.