(NEW YORK) — As the recent COVID-19 wave begins to ebb on the East Coast and in the Midwest, Los Angeles County is still being battered by the virus.
The county reported 102 new COVID deaths Thursday, the highest number recorded in a single day since March 10, 2021, and more than double the 45 fatalities reported one week ago.
The majority of deaths occurred in people aged 50 and older, according to a news release from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
More than 90% of the deaths reported Thursday were among residents who contracted the virus after Christmas Eve, indicating a high likelihood they were infected with the omicron variant, the department said.
Dr. Jeffrey Smith, executive vice president of hospital operations and chief operating officer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said the rise in the total number of deaths is not because omicron is more deadly than previous variants.
“We’re still seeing a mortality rate of about 1.4%. It’s just the sheer number of people who are infected is extremely high so 1.4% of a very, very large number gives you a higher number of absolute deaths,” he told ABC News.
COVID hospitalizations are also on the rise, with 4,814 recorded Thursday, a figure not seen since Feb. 2, 2021. Of those patients, nearly one-third are in intensive care units, an increase from the week before.
Smith said Cedars-Sinai currently has about 220 COVID-19 patients, making up 25% of total patients.
“That had dropped as low as probably 5% to 10% prior to this most recent peak,” he told ABC News.
Smith added that, of the people in the ICU, almost all of them are unvaccinated or have not yet been fully vaccinated, meaning two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines or one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The surge has caused many hospitals in Los Angeles to face staffing shortages, either because there are not enough health care workers to take care of patients or because so many workers have gotten sick and need to stay home.
“It’s a dual crisis because staff have been furloughed or told to stay home because of positive tests, and then you have people who are unvaccinated, who have succumbed to infection and need hospitalization,” Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, a professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, told ABC News.
He continued, “And then you have this third piece of people coming in for a stroke or heart attack or something and then they test positive. But, because of the staffing crisis, the hospital is unable to see as many people as it typically would.”
According to LA Public Health, about 50% of patients statewide were admitted for non-COVID reasons and only found out they were infected while undergoing routine testing.
County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer noted during a virtual media briefing Thursday that whether originally admitted due to the virus or not, the high number of COVID patients puts a strain on hospital staff and resources.
“It limits where people can be housed, what room they can be in, it limits some staffing, it changes the kind of medical and doctor interventions because people still have to practice infection control for an airborne pathogen,” Klausner explained.
Meanwhile, the seven-day rolling average of COVID-19 cases sits at 33,000.
While the daily test-positivity rate declined from more than 20% in late December to 18.5% Thursday, it still means about 1 in 6 people in LA County are testing positive for COVID-19.
The figure is also eightfold higher than the positivity rate of 2% that was being recorded a little over one month ago.
Klausner said until LA County and California come out of this wave, people with COVID symptoms should get tested and, if they do test positive, seek early treatment.
“We actually just did a survey of 10,000 people who tested positive and 25% of people stopped treatment and, of the treatments they stopped, the overwhelming majority were getting vitamins,” he said. “That’s really disappointing when we have known, proven interventions that can reduce people’s risk of going to the hospital.”
Smith also stressed the importance of testing — but urged people not to visit already overcrowded emergency rooms — as well boosting and mask-wearing.
He said he’s been encouraged by declining COVID-19 rates in places such as New York City and hopes Los Angeles isn’t far behind.
“We’ve seen rates declining in some parts of the country and we’re hoping that our experience will be similar to what was seen in South Africa or the U.K., where the rates dropped almost as quickly as they rose,” Smith said.
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