COVID-19 testing site in Echo Park

Walk-up COVID-19 testing site in front of the Edendale Library in Echo Park.

Hours before a much-debated ban on in-person dining takes effect, Los Angeles County health officials today painted a dire picture of the current COVID-19 surge, saying the transmission rate has reached its highest point since March and could overwhelm hospitals within a month.

Meanwhile, public health officials revealed details of a proposed new set of restrictions that would, among other things, reduce how many people would be allowed into markets and other essential businesses at any one time. Markets would be limited to 35% of capacity, for example. 

"We continue to be at a very difficult time in this pandemic, as is so much of the United States," county Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis said. "In fact, our situation is getting worse each day."

According to current county estimates, every COVID-19 patient in the county is passing the virus to an average of 1.27 people -- the highest transmission rate the county has seen since March, before any safety protocols such as face coverings and social distancing were in place.

Based on that transmission rate, health officials estimate that one of every 145 people in the county are now infected with the virus and transmitting it to others. As of today, the county was reporting 1,682 people in hospitals due to COVID-19, filling roughly half of currently available bed space. 

 Unless people change their behavior, "there will likely be shortages in the number of hospital beds, and especially in ICU beds or intensive-care unit beds, over the next two to four weeks," said county Health Services Director Christina Ghaly. 

Davis outlined other dire numbers -- including a 67% increase in coronavirus outbreaks reported at general worksites in the first two weeks of November and a 200% jump in outbreaks at food facilities in that same period. He said 42 new outbreaks were reported to the county in the past day alone.

The county's state-adjusted seven-day average testing positivity rate was 6.6% as of Wednesday, up from 5.3% a week ago. The county was reporting a roughly 3.9% rate at the beginning of November.

The county announced another 4,311 coronavirus cases today, lifting the countywide cumulative total since the pandemic began to 378,323.

The county also announced another 49 deaths, although four of those fatalities were actually reported Tuesday by Long Beach health officials. The countywide death toll stood at 7,543 as of Wednesday.

On Sunday, the county's five-day average of new daily COVID-19 cases topped 4,000, crossing a threshold set the previous week to trigger a closure of in-person dining at county restaurants, which were already limited to outdoor seating. That closure, which has met with intense opposition and criticism from restaurant and business owners, will take effect at 10 p.m. today and remain in place for three weeks.

The county, meanwhile, could soon be enacting even more stringent restrictions on a wider array of businesses. On Monday, the county's five-day average of new cases topped 4,500, a threshold that was expected to trigger a "targeted Safer At Home order" that would prohibit all public and private gatherings an impose strict capacity limits at stores.

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It was unclear when the county might enact such an order, and despite stressing the urgency of controlling virus transmission, Davis was non- committal today about when it would happen. He said health officials were still in discussions with the Board of Supervisors about specifics of the order.

County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the board Tuesday that health officials were recommending that the order:

 Prohibit all public and private gatherings of people not in the same household except for outdoor church services and outdoor protests, which will require masks and social distancing;

 Set occupancy limits for outdoor retail businesses at 50% capacity with masks and social distancing required;

 Set occupancy limits for essential indoor retail businesses at 35% capacity with masks and social distancing required;

 Set occupancy limits for non-essential indoor retail businesses at 20% capacity with masks and social distancing required;

 Keep beaches, trails and parks open with masks and social distancing required, except while swimming;

  Permit walking, running, biking and playing outdoors with masks and social distancing;

  Keep outdoor recreational facilities open for members of a single household using masks and social distancing;

  Close pools that are open to more than one household other than for regulated lap swimming;

  Close or keep closed some non-essential businesses, including office-based businesses, card rooms, clubs, bars, lounges, playgrounds other than at child care centers or schools, theaters, spectator performances, sporting events, bowling alleys and arcades;

  Allow child care and day care centers, K-12 schools and day camps, institutions of higher education, libraries, youth sports and spectator-free pro sports to operate largely under current rules; and

 Continue to adhere to the state curfew prohibiting all gatherings with members of other households from 10 a.m. to 5 a.m. other than essential activities, exempting homeless individuals.

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