COVID-19 testing site in Echo Park

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

COVID-19 outbreaks at workplaces have soared dramatically in recent weeks in response to rising community transmission, Los Angeles County health officials said Wednesday, warning that employers need to ensure their workers and customers are protected.

"We have a problem with COVID-19 transmission at worksites across the entire county," Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said. "As the percentage of people who are positive with COVID-19 increases, there is simply a much larger pool of infected people walking around, often without symptoms, that now expose a greater and greater percentage of people to the virus."

She said that in one month's time, outbreaks at general worksites -- including warehouses, manufacturing facilities and logistics companies -- increased from an average of nine per week to 44 per week. Schools and day care facilities also saw a tripling of outbreaks. Ferrer noted that most of them were "small and well contained," but they involved "dozens of staff and a small number of students."

Such outbreaks reflected a continued rise in cases countywide. Health officials reported another 218 COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday, lifting the countywide death toll from the virus to 12,955. They also announced 14,564 new cases, pushing the cumulative numbers since the pandemic began to 958,497.

Ferrer noted that average daily new cases have risen by 1,092% since November, average daily deaths are up 1,133% and hospitalizations are up 875%.

Ferrer and Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly again noted that hospitalizations appear to be leveling off at an average of just under 8,000 patients per day. State figures showed 7,906 people hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Wednesday, including 1,699 in intensive care.

The county's patient numbers were well above 8,000 last week.

"While the numbers have plateaued at this number just shy of 8000, they have leveled at a rate that is really not sustainable," Ghaly said. "This high plateau does not leave enough open beds to care for patients without COVID. And it does not still allow us to be prepared for an additional onslaught of patients that may present over the next couple of weeks in a potential post-holiday surge."

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Ghaly said the county's hospitals have not yet begun to see the results of gatherings and virus transmission that likely occurred over the Christmas and New Year holidays.

"Even if the slight decline continues, we are nowhere near being in the clear in the L.A. County hospital system," she said. "Hospitals cannot sustain the high level of beds that are occupied with COVID patients."

She added, "For there to be any meaningful relief for health care providers, we need a swift and significant decline in hospitalizations for a period of one to two months. Please do not let this current number of daily hospitalizations feel normal to you just because it's plateaued."

Ferrer said the county is also bracing for the likelihood of a new variant of COVID-19 first discovered in the United Kingdom taking hold locally.

"According to the latest available science, the UK variant doesn't make people sicker, but it is more transmissible, meaning it can spread more easily," Ferrer said. "... Current projections by the experts predict that if left unchecked, this variant could dominate locally by March."

With the variant's ability to rapidly pass from person to person, she said people need to continue taking all necessary precautions, while not ruling out the need for stricter regulations to control the spread.

"We should be prepared to do more if cases remain high," she said. "The work ahead requires us to take every action necessary to reduce transmission."

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