On a day COVID-19 vaccinations finally began, Los Angeles County continued its dramatic surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations today, driving down the availability of intensive-care unit beds and pushing emergency rooms to capacity limits.
To help ease strain on hospitals, Dr. Christina Ghaly, director of the county Department of Health Services, urged residents not to visit emergency rooms for non-emergency care, but instead seek help through other means, such as contacting their health-care provider or going to an urgent-care center.
"Certainly if you need emergency services, you should call 911 or go to your nearest emergency department, and they are able to take care of you," she said.
But Ghaly painted a dire picture of the situation at the county's 70 "911-receiving" hospitals, which have emergency departments and wind up treating COVID-19 patients. Last week, an average of 35%, or 874, of all patients in hospitals' available ICU beds were COVID-19 patients, while 27%, or 2,681, of patients in standard hospitals beds were being treated for the coronavirus.
"Those numbers are absolutely astounding," she said.
On Sunday, a day when emergency departments are traditionally not as busy, 81% of the 911-receiving hospitals asked to have advanced-life-support ambulance traffic diverted to other medical facilities at some point during the day due to overcrowded ERs. Ghaly said last week the traditional average of hospitals requesting diversion this time of year is 10% to 15%.
According to the county DHS, as of last week, county hospitals were averaging a total of 2,522 staffed ICU beds, with roughly 85 beds on average available on any given day. It was the second week in a row the average ICU bed availability was less than 100.
Today, the county reported 4,203 people hospitalized, with roughly 21% of them -- about 882 -- in ICU care.
Ghaly noted that the 2,522 average staffed ICU beds last week is "hovering right around the licensed bed capacity for adult ICU beds in the county."
"This ability to surge, while impressive in terms of where we're at today -- 13% higher in total ICU bed capacity versus where we were at in July -- that surge ability is not infinite," Ghaly said. "It takes its toll on the dedicated men and women that staff our hospitals. They are our most finite and valued resource."
Despite nearing ICU capacity, hospital numbers are projected to get much worse before they get better. Ghaly said the county is averaging about 500 new COVID hospital admissions a day, and it is still projecting reaching 700 per day within a week. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer predicted the county will top 5,000 COVID-19 patients by the weekend.
The county reported another 7,344 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases on Monday, but Ferrer said that number is artificially low due to reporting delays from one of the county's largest processing labs. That backlog is expected to lead to an unusually large number of new cases on Tuesday.
The new cases lifted the countywide cumulative total from throughout the pandemic to 532,730.
The county also reported 48 new deaths, raising the overall number to 8,345.
Ferrer noted the excitement of the first batch of COVID-19 vaccine doses arriving in the county on Monday, but said there's a long way to go until the county emerges from the pandemic.
"In the meantime, we all do need to remain extremely diligent in reducing transmission of the virus," she said. "We're continuing to see extremely high numbers of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19, and the surge we're experiencing is quite alarming. There's no way to stop this explosive surge except to use the tools we've had all along that really do work to reduce transmission of this deadly virus."