On heels of nerve-wracking Christmas weekend, LA County faces an Omicron-framed January

Under skies packed with rainclouds, Los Angeles County moved Monday, Dec. 27, from a nerve-wracking Christmas weekend to face the new year still scrambling to contain the swiftly spreading Omicron COVID-19 variant. A challenging next few weeks await, with the relentless coronavirus still around and heading into its third year.

“The way it’s going right now, it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” said the nation’s top U.S. infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, as he cautioned early risers on Sunday-morning TV. “We don’t expect things are going to turn around in a few days to a week. It likely will take much longer than that, but that’s unpredictable,” he said on ABC’s Good Morning America.

Another nine L.A. County lives were confirmed lost Monday, adding to the 27,555 residents who have died from the disease. Public Health officials also confirmed another 7,425 new cases, adding to the 1,623,442 officially infected by it since early 2020.

As COVID hospitalizations rise anew, the county on Monday reported that infections are also increasing among health care workers, despite their generally high rate of vaccination. During the week ending Dec. 18, a total of 292 cases were identified among health care workers in the county, up 26% from the previous week, according to the county. Nearly half — 46% — of hospitals in the county are reporting staffing shortages, compared with 20% at the beginning of last year’s winter surge.

The recent spike has indeed proved unnerving. On Dec. 18, the county saw a daily count of 3,730 cases. By Christmas Eve, the total climbed to nearly 10,000.

But it’s not the high number of cases that has public health officials concerned the most, given some early evidence that the virus in its Omicron form might not be as severe as its predecessors.

Rather, it’s how the growing caseload, particularly among the unvaccinated, could strain the healthcare system, which is already reporting a steady increases of patients sickened by the virus.

On Monday, 966 hospital beds in L.A. County were occupied by patients with COVID-19. That was an increase of 62 people from the day before, a 266-patient increase  from just 13 days ago, and a 353-patient increase from Dec. 3, according to the state’s hospital census dashboard.

The current hospital numbers are still far off from 1,790 level of last summer’s peak and the more than 8,000 beds filled back on Jan. 5. But the rise is nonetheless a red flag for L.A. County Public Health officials.

Experts are concerned that short-staffed hospitals — with exhausted staffs facing an influx of non-COVID-19 patients who put off care during the peak of the pandemic — will begin to see a tidal wave of COVID patients. As of Monday, 46% of hospitals in the county were reporting staffing shortages, compared with 20% at the outset of last winter’s case surge, the county reported.

That’s why the county last week revised its health order to require eligible workers in healthcare settings be boosted by Feb. 1, 2022 or be tested for COVID-19 twice a week beginning Dec. 27 — if in acute health care or long-term care settings. The order also recommends, according to the county, all workers upgrade their face coverings to surgical masks or higher-level respirators, such as N95 masks.

Some evidence suggests that the Omicron variant, while highly transmissible, is not as serious as its predecessors. But experts cautioned Monday that early studies of how serious the disease is comes from populations that were younger, or with stronger levels of immunity than in the United States, where still just more than 60% of the populations, or in L.A. County where million remain unvaccinated, and where millions still remain vulnerable because of weakened immune systems.

“Keeping healthcare workers safe is critical to maintaining functionality across our healthcare facilities when surges lead to rising rates of hospitalizations,”  Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Monday. “The threat of rising cases and concerning hospital staffing shortages require us to act quickly to ensure that in the face of the high transmissible Omicron variant, our essential workforce has an important added layer of protection.”

On the coast Monday, the COVID-19 testing line wrapped around the block at Long Beach City College’s PCH campus in the morning, as local officials worked to meet revitalized demand for testing. Cars wound through neighborhoods surrounding the college’s Veterans Stadium, a city-run COVID-19 testing site. Some waited hours to have their noses swabbed.

“After all the holiday shopping and getting together with family, I wanted to make sure that I didn’t have it,” said James Suazo, the executive director of Long Beach Forward, a progressive Long Beach-based nonprofit.

Suazo said the site is in his neighborhood and he’s been there to be tested more than a dozen times. Previously, the longest he’s ever waited was 20 minutes. On Monday, he waited nearly two hours.

“Being there, I could see through car windows, a lot of people looked scared and a lot of people looked angry,” Suazo, 31, who has been vaccinated and boosted, said by phone Monday afternoon.

Jennifer Rice Epstein, a spokesperson for the Long Beach Health Department, said demand for testing after the holiday is “way up,” and added the recent rain has impacted the city’s ability to test at outdoor venues. “We definitely have enough tests,” she said in a text message. “Our capacity is being affected by rain. We also are seeing an increase in cases and testing demand.”

Such demand over the weekend — coupled with a lack of at-home rapid testing kits on store shelves — prompted the county Department of Health Services to expand free COVID-19 testing, as many residents rushed to get tested ahead of holiday gatherings. The department relaunched its Holiday Home Test Collection Program.

Testing site expansion could continue as officials “closely monitor testing needs and adjust capacity as needed in the coming weeks,” said Dr. Christina Ghaly, Director of Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.

The trendline appears to signal a January in which testing will once again emerge as ubiquitous as the federal government sends millions of testing kits to Americans.

“My biggest concern is what is going to be happening at the hospitals,” said Richard Pink, owner of Pink’s Hot Dogs, whose popular eatery is currently open to only outdoor dining.

“If I see they are filling up to the point it’s no longer safe to keep a business open, then we would consider closing,” he said. “We’re just waiting to see.”

Pink sees his business connected a network of factors that reflect the greater health of L.A. If tourism, nightlife and other businesses are closed, that’s not good for his own place in the circle, he said.

The next few weeks will be crucial, said Pink, who has had to close his iconic eatery twice for extended periods during the pandemic.

Experts agree. Past surges have followed a similar pattern: First came a wave of infections. Then a wave of hospitalizations. And then  a spike in the number of deaths.

Public health experts, residents and business hold out hope that with interventions such as vaccines, increased mask wearing and physical distancing, the region can avert a similar January rerun this time.

We’ll know over the next few weeks, said Dr. Roger Lewis, who formerly led the county Department of Health Services COVID-19 projection modeling efforts, and professor and emergency room physician at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.

Infected vaccinated people might still need a visit to the ER or to the doctor, but are less likely to be ill enough to require a ventilator, he said. They’ll still need to be isolated and unable to work during as they recover, he said.

Lewis was concerned, however, about people who remain unvaccinated. And he’s worried about the potential for more children 5 to 11 to be infected, much like in New York, where pediatricians have warned of a “striking rise” in infections among the young.

Leave comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *.