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COVID deaths continue mounting in LA County, but don't celebrate yet

The average hospital stay for patients has increased to more than nine days

CNN News Wire | 1/21/2021, 10:45 a.m.
There's cautious optimism today that stabilizing COVID-19 case numbers...

There's cautious optimism today that stabilizing COVID-19 case numbers, positivity rates and hospital admissions in Los Angeles County are signaling a reversal of a virus surge, but health officials warn the numbers are still dangerously elevated and virus transmission remains widespread.

"While it's too soon to tell if we're actually seeing a significant decline in the surge ... we are very hopeful that the actions taken by many are starting to work,'' Ferrer said. "Unfortunately, even if cases are beginning to decline, these numbers are still really high and they're doing to continue to drive overcrowding in hospitals and high numbers of deaths.

"The reality for us is that COVID-19 is still rampant at our workplaces, in our neighborhoods and really across every corner of this county,'' she said.

And while most metrics have been trending downward in the past week, the death toll continues mounting. Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer reported 262 more COVID fatalities on Wednesday, while Long Beach health officials announced and Pasadena added five, lifting the countywide total from throughout the pandemic to 14,416.

Ferrer said the county's seven-day average of daily deaths was 179 on Jan. 10, dropping to 174 on Jan. 12. But the daily number skyrocketed to 262 on Wednesday -- possibly a result of reporting lags from the holiday weekend.

The persistently high number of daily deaths in recent weeks is a result of the massive spike in hospitalizations the county experienced over the past month.

Estimates released Wednesday by the Department of Health Services showed that since Nov. 3, about 23% of people hospitalized due to COVID-19 have died -- up from 12% in September and October. Health officials said the increase is not indicative of a decline in quality-of-care, but the result of overwhelmed hospitals admitting only the very sickest of patients in recent weeks.

That move also contributed to the average hospital stay for patients increasing to more than nine days, up from less than seven in October.

But while deaths persist, the county has begun to see a drop in daily numbers of new cases, along with dips in overall hospitalizations and the testing positivity rate. Ferrer reported 6,492 new cases on Wednesday, the lowest total in weeks, although she said the number may be low due to reporting lags and lack of testing availability over the holiday weekend.

Ferrer said the county was averaging more than 15,000 new daily cases on Jan. 8, with the average dropping to about 10,000 a week later.

The seven-day average rate of people testing positive for the virus was 14% as of Wednesday, down from more than 20% at the end of December. The number of people hospitalized averaged more than 8,000 on Jan. 5, dropping to 7,383 on Jan. 15. As of Wednesday, there were 7,263 people hospitalized in the county, according to state figures, including 1,692 in intensive care.

Ferrer stressed that while hospitalization numbers have dropped, they still remain dangerously high.

"So the end is not yet in sight,'' she said. "With high numbers of daily cases, hundreds more people will require hospitalizations every week.''

The 6,492 new cases reported Wednesday, along with 593 announced by Long Beach and 53 by Pasadena, increased the cumulative countywide total from throughout the pandemic to 1,038,738.

Ferrer continued to urge patience among people trying to make appointments for COVID-19 vaccinations, noting that slots are limited due to scarce supplies of vaccine. The appoint website -- vaccinatelacounty.com -- is running again after crashing Tuesday afternoon.

The county has also expanded the capacity of its call-in reservation system, which is available from 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. at 833-540-0473. Officials urged residents to use the call system only if they are unable to make appointments through the website.

Ferrer said Wednesday the county expects to receive about 143,900 more doses of the vaccines next week. However, since people need to receive two doses of the medication, spaced three to four weeks apart, the bulk of the vaccine coming next week will be used to administer second doses to people who have already received the first shot.

She estimated that only 37,900 of the doses coming next week will be available for people to receive their first dose.

"This is what I mean by a serious supply problem,'' she said. "We just are not receiving enough vaccine doses to move as quickly as we and you would like us to.''

She said that as of the end of last week, the county had received 685,000 doses, with 307,000 used so far for first doses and 87,000 for second doses. The county is still working to complete vaccinations of hundreds of thousands of health care workers with remaining doses, even as it expands access to people 65 and older. The county received another 168,000 doses this week.

State officials have said it could take until summer to finish vaccinating all residents 65 and over. Ferrer said Wednesday there are 1.3 million people in Los Angeles County aged 65 and over, along with about 800,000

health care workers and long-term care residents and staff. So completing the two-dose vaccination of those people along will require 4 million doses. As of this week, the county has only received about 853,000 doses total.

Absent any change in the vaccine priority list, that means the rest of the county's 10 million residents will be waiting months to have a shot at being vaccinated.

The county got some good news Wednesday night, when the state lifted a hold that was placed on a batch of Moderna vaccine when six health care workers in San Diego developed severe allergic reactions. The state's epidemiologist announced the hold Sunday night, pending an investigation by state and local authorities. That took 30,000 doses of vaccine received by L.A. County out of circulation.

But the state announced Wednesday night that the investigation into the doses had been completed, with no issues found, and counties were cleared to begin using the shots again.

Ferrer said some doses from the affected batch had already been administered in Los Angeles County before the hold was announced, with no reports of any allergic reactions.