LA County reports a stunning 6,509 coronavirus cases Wednesday, one of the steepest-ever increases

Fueled by quickly rising omicron variant cases, Los Angeles County confirmed 6,509 new COVID-19 infections on Thursday, Dec. 22, more than double the day before and one of the steepest rises ever in the pandemic’s nearly two years.

“These numbers make it crystal clear that we are headed into a very challenging time,” said Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer during a Wednesday briefing.

That time is the holidays, coupled with short-staffed hospital staffs worried about the high numbers of patients they are already treating from non-COVID-related conditions. By year’s end officials said, the region could be seeing 20,000 cases  a day.

Ferrer said the numbers are being fueled by the omicron variant of the virus, which is highly transmissible, though some experts say it appears to be less severe than previous versions. Officials reported 162 more omicron cases in the county on Wednesday, along with 16 more deaths.

Ferrer also reported a sharp increase in the daily average rate of people testing positive for the virus, with the number reaching 4.5% as of Wednesday, more than double the 1.9% rate from a week ago.

All told, 27,488 people have died from the disease in the county, and 1,576,702 have been confirmed infected.

On Wednesday, 770 people were hospitalized with the virus, an increase of 22 from the previous day, according to the state database; 166 were in intensive care, a decrease of eight.

Ferrer said severe illness and hospitalizations will occur primarily among the unvaccinated, and could easily overwhelm hospital systems coping with more staffing issues than they were during last winter’s COVID surge.

“As you can see, over the past couple of days, reported cases are going up steeply,” she said. “Meanwhile, our hospitalizations are holding relatively stable. This staggeringly fast rise and the health care system’s strain that has followed similarly steep increases elsewhere in the world is the cause of our alarm.”

The latest metrics as the nation grappled with the surge, forcing businesses to close, professional sports games to be postponed and holiday plans to be shifted.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday announced that healthcare workers would be required get a booster shot of the coronavirus vaccine.

“The ubiquity of this variant is now taking over,” Newsom said, noting that the number of coronavirus cases statewide has doubled in a week.

Of utmost urgency to public health officials was maintaining precious hospital capacity at a fragile time for many of them.

“We’d be really grateful if, in fact, evidence continues to mount that omicron causes less severe illness,” Ferrer said. “The problem is a numbers problem. So if omicron causes less severe illness but it infects many more people, then even if you had a smaller number of the people who are infected get severe illness, you could still end up with overwhelming numbers.”

Even a small number, as low as 3%, could amount to a lot of people amid particularly vulnerable populations in L.A. County, Ferrer said.

It doesn’t help that private and public hospitals are already strained.

Many staffers have left the world of acute COVID-19 care in the wake of past surges. Officials say some, facing the prospect of a new surge, are contemplating leaving now.

And many patients — who don’t have COVID-19  but who delayed treatment during the pandemic — also are coming in to hospitals for treatment.

“We’re talking about a healthcare system that is already horrifically fatigued,” said Supervisor Holly Mitchell, chair of the Board of Supervisors. “To continue to push the envelope and expect that they will just stand and deliver, and think they have the same human capacity they did a year ago or 18 months ago isn’t realistic.”

Hospital officials, elected leaders and public health officials urged people to get vaccinated or boosted going into the holidays. But they cautioned that some kind of a surge is inevitable and that cases in the region could see 20,000 cases a day by the end of the year.

Deaths and hospitalizations, however, remain relatively low. But as in past surges, they usually lag about two weeks behind the initial spike in cases.

Ferrer said there is hope that on the other side of the holiday, a moderate surge could be managed so that it doesn’t overwhelm the system.

Ferrer welcomes the pending distribution of millions of test kits.

This week, in conjunction with the California Department of Public Health, hundreds of thousands of over-the-counter testing kits will be distributed for vulnerable residents through service provider networks, daycare centers and community partners, officials said. Public Health urged residents to get tested before and after travel, if exposed or sick, and if gathering with people outside their home.

Affirming her consistent call for more people to be vaccinated, Ferrer noted that between Dec. 5 and Dec. 11:

–Fully vaccinated people with boosters were 20 times more protected from infection; and

–Fully vaccinated residents without boosters were four times more protected, compared to unvaccinated people.

“There are millions in L.A. County at much higher risk from omicron, including those with weakened immune systems because of advanced age or health conditions and those not yet vaccinated, including 500,000 children under the age of 5,” Ferrer said. “I know we’re all exhausted and we’re depleted by this long-lasting pandemic. But we’re going to need to find our reserves and be realistic about what it will take to get through the latest challenge as we celebrate Christmas, Kwanzaa and the New Year.”

As of Sunday, 78% of eligible county residents aged 5 and up have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 70% were fully vaccinated. Of the county’s overall 10.3 million residents, 74% have received at least one dose, and 66% are fully vaccinated.

Black residents continue to have the lowest vaccination rate overall, at just 56% with at least one dose. Among Latino/a residents, the rate is 62%, compared to 75% of white residents and 84% of Asians.

Ferrer said the low numbers, particularly among young Black and Latino residents, are particularly disturbing. She also noted a drop in the number of children aged 5-11 who received first doses of vaccine over the past week. Ferrer said it is “not what we hoped to see” going into a time “when children are out of school and gathering with others.”

She stressed the need for more people to get vaccinated and receive booster shots, while also adhering to masking requirements and taking extra precautions during holiday gatherings.

“I know that we’re all exhausted and depleted by this long-lasting pandemic,” she said. “But we’re going to need to find our reserves and be realistic about what it will take to get through the latest challenge as we celebrate Christmas, Kwanza and the new year. Please find ways to celebrate with as much safety as possible.”

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.

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