Fear, anxiety raged during 2021 as second year of pandemic ends

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Wave Staff Report

LOS ANGELES — A year ago, state and county officials were hoping the increased availability of vaccines would halt the spread of the coronavirus and allow people to resume their normal lives.

Twelve months later, they are still hoping.

The latest variant strain of COVID-19 — labeled Omicron — is causing another surge in coronavirus cases, filling hospital beds and putting health officials on the verge of panic.

Last January, health officials eased restrictions on outdoor dining at restaurants and personal care businesses such as barber shops, hair salons and nail salons following the lifting of all regional stay-at-home orders by state health officials.

By June, everything was almost back to normal, and health officials were encouraging everyone to get vaccinated.

County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in late June that COVID-19 was “a pandemic of unvaccinated people” as the Delta variant began spreading.

“The spread of the more infectious Delta variant through intermingling of unmasked individuals where vaccination status is unknown has caused a rapid spread of COVID-19 that is resulting in a significant increase in cases and hospitalizations,” Ferrer said in a statement in July.

“By wearing masks indoors at public places and worksites, we can get back to slowing the spread of the virus. Many businesses and worksites are doing their part by posting signs and asking employees and customers to mask up while indoors. Please do your part and cooperate.

By November, 81% of county residents aged 12 and over had received at least one dose of COVID vaccine, and 73% were fully vaccinated. Of the county’s overall 10.3 million population, 70% had received at least one dose, and 63% were fully vaccinated.

Still, officials were concerned that as fall turned to winter another surge in COVID-19 cases was on the horizon.

“Unfortunately, increased transmission among those not vaccinated will affect vaccinated people, as well — which is why additional protections such as masking remain so important,” Ferrer said last month. “Getting vaccinated, getting boosters, and masking up indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces remains critical as we confront the real possibility of a winter surge.”

As 2021 comes to an end, that possibility is now here.

County hospitals were treating about 550 patients a day with COVID-19 in late November. A month later that figure had jumped to almost 1,000 patients a day.

More than 11,000 new cases were reported in the county Dec. 26 and officials feared that number would rise to 20,000 before New Year’s Day.

Ferrer tried to ease the minds of people who feared the return of stay-at-home orders and business closures.

She said the county is not immediately considering a return to lockdown or other severe restrictions on public activity, but that will depend on the actions residents take to slow the spread of the virus.

“I’ve always been transparent and honest that with a variant such as Omicron and potentially other variants that could happen in the future, every single option has to be on the table,” Ferrer said. “Every single tool we have has to be available for us to protect people’s lives and livelihood and … avoid overwhelming the hospital system.

“I think if we can all do this, all of us, every single person, commit to celebrating with as much safety as possible, which may mean you’re changing up some of your plans, we’re going to be OK,” she added.

Ferrer blamed the renewed spread of the virus on the Omicron variant of the virus, which experts say is easily spread from person to person. Even people fully vaccinated are susceptible to Omicron infection, although health officials say they are far less likely to become severely ill, wind up hospitalized or die. “While we all wish that 2022 would begin without the continued tragedy of serious illness and death associated with COVID, we are instead facing the prospect of an alarming surge that requires every person to act with intentionality: get vaccinated and boosted, get tested, and please, always wear a mask around others,” Ferrer said Dec. 28. “These are the tools we have to try to keep each other safe over the holidays.”

A year ago, the county was near the 10,000 mark in COVID-19 related deaths with about 800,000 total cases reported.

As 2021 draws to a close, those numbers have increased at least twofold. They now sit at 27,555 deaths and 1,623,442 total cases, numbers that are sure to continue to rise as the Omicron strain makes its way through the world.

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