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California sets record as huge surge in virus cases begins to hit hospitals

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California hit another milestone Sunday in its struggle against an unprecedented surge in coronavirus cases, reporting more COVID-19 patients in state hospitals now than at any other point during the pandemic.

Both statewide and in L.A. County, average daily coronavirus cases have quadrupled in recent weeks and hospitalizations have tripled. There were 7,415 COVID-19 patients in California hospitals as of Saturday, according to the most recent numbers released by the state. The largest number was in L.A. County, which reported 2,185 patients.

Average daily deaths are also significantly up — tripling in L.A. County and close to doubling statewide in recent weeks.

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The surge has sparked a race in the county to tamp down the increase in cases before a wave of hospitalizations overwhelms the healthcare system.

County health officials have announced a series of new restrictions in rapid succession over the past two weeks as the numbers have continued to shoot up.

“We were prepared for an increase,” Barbara Ferrer, the L.A. County health director, said Saturday. “None of us really thought the increase would be so big across such a short period of time.”

The county Health Department on Sunday reported 5,014 new cases of the virus and 19 related deaths. The high tally came despite the fact that case numbers usually drop on the weekends, when some labs don’t report results. Officials had also said they expected the number of new cases to be lower than normal for several days because no community testing was performed on Thanksgiving, and only limited testing was offered the day after.

The latest round of restrictions in the county, which take effect Monday, ban gatherings among people from different households, and put new occupancy limits on businesses but permit most to remain open. They were preceded by measures requiring that nonessential businesses close at 10 p.m. and that restaurants suspend outdoor dining.

Officials say that if conditions continue to deteriorate, it may be necessary to issue stricter rules that recall the stay-at-home orders imposed in the spring.

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“More restrictive measures? I can’t imagine what that would look like at this point,” said Maria Salinas, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

She said the business community was concerned with the spike in cases but that many felt the move to shut down outdoor dining was not based on data that proved the virus was spreading among people eating at restaurants. Health officials have said there’s an elevated risk of spread anyplace where people gather with others and eat, drink and linger without wearing masks.

“So we’re very concerned some of these regulations could be arbitrary and viewed as arbitrary without the data,” Salinas said Saturday. “And [Friday’s] order further reducing capacity at businesses, it really eliminates the option for many of these businesses to get up and running again, and it’s very devastating for them.”

Some county officials have expressed similar sentiments.

“Here we go again. I am not convinced that shutting down, reopening and shutting down again is effective,” said Supervisor Janice Hahn, who together with Supervisor Kathryn Barger put forth a proposal that called for the board to allow restaurants to continue to offer outdoor dining. The motion was voted down last week.

“Nothing we have done so far has worked,” Hahn said in a statement. “Our businesses are hurting. Kids aren’t back at school. Our healthcare system is about to be overwhelmed.”

Barger said she also understood the frustration over the new restrictions, especially coming on the heels of the outdoor dining shutdown.

“Public health protection is vital — but for our efforts to be most effective we need to fully engage our cities and local communities,” she said in a statement.

The surge in new coronavirus cases began late last month, and new cases are now rising more rapidly than they did during the peak of the crisis in mid-July, officials say.

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Across California, an average of 13,000 people are testing positive for the virus daily over a seven-day period, more than quadruple the rate in late October, when an average of 3,000 people were testing positive daily.

In L.A. County, an average of 4,300 people are testing positive daily; about 1,000 were testing positive daily in mid-October, according to county records.

As a region, Southern California has one of the highest average daily coronavirus rates of any area in California. Over a seven-day period before Thanksgiving, Southern California counties reported an average of 40 daily coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents, the highest on record so far. That’s more than twice as bad as the San Francisco Bay Area, which reported an average of 17 daily coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents.

But the surge in cases has been climbing so fast, and hospital beds are filling up so quickly, that officials across the state are warning that hospital beds could run short in a matter of weeks unless something is done to drastically reduce the spread of disease. Should staffing at intensive care units be stretched beyond capacity, mortality is virtually certain to worsen dramatically.

That would affect not only COVID-19 patients, but also those who need emergency treatment for other medical problems such as those involved in accidents or who have suffered appendicitis, heart attacks or strokes.

By Saturday, statewide COVID-19 hospitalizations had topped 7,400, surpassing the all-time high of 7,170 set in July. Only a month earlier, on Oct. 28, there were about 2,400 people in the state’s hospitals with COVID-19.

L.A. County crossed a grim threshold on Friday, when more than 2,000 people were hospitalized with the coronavirus infection, according to state data released Saturday; just a month ago, there were 750 people in L.A. County hospitals with the virus. On Saturday, that number climbed further, to 2,185 patients. L.A. County is rapidly nearing its all-time high of COVID-19 hospitalizations of 2,232, set in July.

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Because hospitalizations reflect cases that were identified two to three weeks earlier, officials are certain they’ll continue to increase for the next two to three weeks, given the recent case numbers.

Two to three weeks ago, L.A. was seeing 2,300 to 2,500 new cases a day; now, it’s over 4,300, Ferrer said Saturday. And it’s not yet known whether gatherings over the Thanksgiving holiday will spark an even bigger increase in cases that result in still more hospitalizations.

If so, Ferrer said, “we’re in for a very rough time because we will have a surge on top of a surge.”

Coronavirus-related deaths, which tend to lag a couple of weeks behind hospitalizations, have also been on the rise.

In Los Angeles, the deaths of 30 people a day were reported on average daily from COVID-19, triple the rate from the period around election day, when the deaths of 10 people a day were reported on average daily. Just before Thanksgiving, statewide, an average of 75 deaths were reported daily over a seven-day period, nearly double the rate from mid-November, when about 40 deaths a day were reported.

An influential model run by the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation says that, without major changes in current policies or behavior, California is on track to double its cumulative death toll by the end of winter, from the current tally of more than 19,000 to more than 37,000 by March 1.

It’s still possible to change that trajectory, said Anne Rimoin, professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

“Every illness, hospitalization and death at this point is avoidable, if we all do our part,” she said.

That includes wearing face coverings, washing hands frequently and keeping six feet apart from others.

The new rules recently announced by the county should also help because they reduce the probability of people mingling, especially in environments where they might let their guard down, Rimoin said.

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