Coronavirus lab testing

Microbiologist extracts COVID-19 genetic material from patient samples in the Public Health Laboratory. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health conducts Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test for COVID-19 on March 19, 2020. 

With conference rooms, cafeterias and gift shops converted into medical-care spaces, Los Angeles County hospitals continued to be overrun with COVID-19 and other patients Monday, while deaths from the virus spiked sharply upward, nearing the 10,000-fatality mark.

And while it will take several weeks to determine if the Christmas holiday will lead to another surge in virus cases, health officials said the weekend images of crowded airports and freeways paint a dim picture that likely portend an even more horrific situation at hospitals.

"The situation is truly dire," county Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly said, saying the county's hospitals are "inundated with COVID patients."

As of Monday, half of all the staffed hospital beds in the county were filled with COVID patients, as were two-thirds of the county's staffed intensive-care unit beds. The county reported a total of 617 available hospital beds, and just 54 ICU beds -- half of them pediatric beds.

Hospital emergency departments are overwhelmed, Ghaly said, with medical centers on Sunday spending 83% of their operating hours diverting ambulances to other hospitals due to lack of space or staffing.

"There's many situations in which as many as 10 ambulances are waiting to offload patients, and those patients are being cared for and treated in the ambulances as if it's part of the emergency room bay," Ghaly said. "Hospitals are treating patients in other areas that are not typically used for patient care at all, not just not used for inpatient care. They're using places like conference rooms or gift shops to provide patient care."

And with rising COVID case numbers and hospitalizations, come rising deaths. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer announced another 73 COVID deaths on Monday. But she said the county is working to confirm an additional 432 fatalities over the past few days -- deaths that weren't initially tallied due to the holiday weekend and a Spectrum internet outage that impacted reporting.

If those deaths are confirmed, the county's overall COVID death toll -- which stood at 9,555 as of Monday -- could surpass the 10,000 mark. Ferrer noted that over the past week, a person died in Los Angeles County from COVID every 10 to 15 minutes.

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Ferrer reported 13,661 additional COVID cases on Monday, raising the countywide cumulative total to 733,325.

The county also reported a total of 6,914 people hospitalized due to COVID-19. However, the state -- which generally has more updated figures -- put the county's total at 7,181 as of Monday, including more than 1,500 confirmed or suspected coronavirus patients in ICU care.

Between early November and Saturday, average daily coronavirus hospitalizations in the county increased by 674%, while daily deaths have jumped by 600%.

Health officials said the numbers are bound to get worse, with Ghaly noting that many residents appeared to have ignored warnings against holiday travel, noting television images of crowded freeways, busy airports and even public gatherings. Those pictures foretell an additional surge in cases and hospitalizations in January.

"Now it's one thing to have a surge when the staff are well, when they're rested, when the number of patients is steady," Ghaly said. "It's a very, very different and infinitely more dangerous situation to have hospitals experiencing a surge when the staff are exhausted, they're stretched thin and they're already caring for more patients than they can safely handle."

Ferrer began emphasizing the anti-gathering message ahead of yet another holiday just days away: New Year's Eve. She said anyone who traveled over Christmas in spite of warnings needs to self-quarantine for 10 days, even if they believe they took precautions.

"It has been hard to find joy this holiday season, in light of the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on so many across this county," Ferrer said. "And the sad reality is that all indicators tell us that our situation may only get worse as we begin 2021. The rate of community transmission remains extraordinarily high, and this has taxed our hospital system as more COVID-19 patients continue to stream in on top of the thousands of patients already fighting for their lives. As cases continue to remain at these alarmingly high levels, hundreds more people are likely to die."

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