Holiday shopping linked to pandemic surge by health officials

Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — Hospital space in Los Angeles County continued to dwindle Dec. 21 as the surge of COVID-19 cases pressured emergency rooms and intensive care units, leaving health officials to decry residents who flocked to shopping centers over the weekend and ate on restaurant patios in defiance of infection-control regulations.

If you’re still out there shopping for your loved ones for this holiday season or you’re planning a holiday get-together, then you are missing the gravity of the situation that is affecting hospitals across Los Angeles County and California and this nation,” county Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly said. “People are very sick in the hospitals. They are dying there.

And our hospitals may not have the equipment or the capacity or the resources to take care of you in the way that you need or expect,” she said.

“Though they may seem benign, these actions are extremely high risk, and we ask that everyone do everything they can to avoid spreading the virus to avoid prolonging the surge and avoid increasing the number of deaths that families across our county will experience in the days and weeks to come.”

Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer also expressed frustration at continued violations of protocols by restaurants that allow customers to purchase take-out food, then sit on their patios to eat, despite a ban on outdoor dining.

I’m troubled that this is still the conversation because our numbers are so horrific in the county,” Ferrer said. “Please by all means, frequent our restaurants, pick up the food, take it out and take it home so that you can eat it with your immediate household members. That’s what we’re asking for. I think our guidance is very clear on the fact that tables and chairs should be closed off so that people are not sitting in them.”

She also lamented harassment of public health inspectors who are in the field trying to enforce the rules.

I don’t think we’ve ever had as much harassment as the inspectors are experiencing now,” she said.

Without specifying, she said the county is “modifying our practices so that we’re addressing the safety concerns.” She urged people who have a problem with an inspector to call a county complaint line.

But it’s really inappropriate for there to be harassment of public health people that are just trying to do their job,” she said.

The frustration and urgency expressed by health officials came days ahead of the Christmas holiday, which has authorities fearing yet another post-holiday spike in virus infections — a surge on top of a surge — that could officially leave hospitals overrun.

According to the county Department of Health Services, as of Dec. 21 a total of 776 hospital beds were staffed and available in the county, including just 30 adult ICU beds. The county reported another record-setting level of people hospitalized due to COVID-19, with the number reaching 5,709, with 21% of those people, or nearly 1,200, in intensive care.

The county has an overall licensed ICU capacity of about 2,500 beds. According to the county Department of Health Services, the 70 “911-receiving” hospitals that have emergency departments surged their capacity to operate a daily average of 2,660 ICU beds last week. On average, those beds were occupied by 996 confirmed or suspected COVID cases on a daily basis, or about 37% of the 2,660 staffed beds.

The hospitals last week averaged 55 open and staffed ICU beds on a daily basis.

Those 70 hospitals operated a daily average of about 10,000 non-ICU beds last week, with 36% of them on any given day occupied by confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients, and only about 300 beds staffed and available each day.

The county also reported another 56 coronavirus-related deaths, lifting the cumulative total to 8,931.

Another 11,271 COVID-19 cases also were reported by the county, lifting the cumulative number from throughout the pandemic to 634,849. Between Nov. 1 and Dec. 15, the average daily number of new cases in the county has increased by 862%, while nearly tripling in the last three weeks alone.

The number of hospitalizations jumped by 481% between Nov. 9 and Dec. 17, along with a 369% increase in average daily deaths during that same time period.

Help is on the way in the form of vaccines, with thousands more doses on their way to the county this week, although it will still be several weeks until the shots become available to the general public.

Ferrer said the county received 82,873 doses of the Pfizer vaccine last week, and another 48,750 doses are expected to arrive this week. The county also expects to receive 116,600 doses of the newly approved Moderna vaccine this week.

The Pfizer vaccines will continue to be directed to hospitals for continued vaccinations of frontline health care workers. The Moderna vaccine, which does not require the super-cold-storage needed for the Pfizer vaccine, will be directed toward 338 skilled nursing facilities in the county, where an estimated 70,000 residents and staff will receive doses.

The Moderna vaccine also will be used for 15,500 paramedics and emergency medical technicians, along with about 300 health care workers who are actually administering the vaccines.

Ferrer said about 23,000 health care workers in the county have already been vaccinated with the initial allotment of Pfizer vaccine from last week. She said about 506,000 frontline health care workers are in line to be vaccinated.

Once those groups have been vaccinated, priority will move to intermediate care and home health care workers, community health workers, public health field staff and workers at primary care, correctional facility and urgent care clinics. Lab technicians, dental workers and pharmacy staff will be up next.

After that, priority will move to people aged 75 and older, along with essential workers, including first responders, teachers, school staff, day care workers, manufacturing workers, correctional staff, postal workers, public transit, food and agriculture workers and grocery store workers.

Next up will be people aged 65 and older, along with people 16 and older who have significant underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk of severe illness.

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