Los Angeles County ended 2020 on Thursday, Dec. 31, with its hospitals buckling under the weight of 15,129 new coronavirus cases, with another grim daily update of 290 new virus-linked deaths and with more urgent pleas for residents to stay home.
The last public health update of 2020 was among the year’s saddest, as officials described a countywide hospital system on the brink of catastrophe. Quiet scenes outside of local hospitals belied the expanding tragedy going on inside, and in backside lots where ambulances endure extended wait times — sometimes for hours — and hospital workers scramble to treat growing throngs of patients.
“We’re experiencing extreme conditions in L.A. County,” said L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer. “With no decline in the number of new cases, our hospitals continue to be overwhelmed. As more and more people are rushed to hospitals, the tragic fact is that hundreds of more people will die every week from COVID-19.”
The 290 reported dead on New Year’s Eve — expanded in part by a continuing backlog of reporting — raised the year’s total to 10,345 deaths in the 11 months since the virus was first detected in this county of 10 million people.
It was a point amplified as the county’s Department of Health Services tweeted a brief description of an L.A. County victim every 10 minutes — the rate at which people are dying from the virus.
All told, 770,602 people were infected with the virus in 2020, making the region an epicenter for the international outbreak, and fueling the state’s total of more than 25,000 deaths.
As of Thursday, 67 more people were hospitalized, bumping up the number countywide to 7,613. The number of people more seriously ill ticked up by 52, adding to 1,580 in precious intensive-are space, which dwindled to 320 open ICU beds, according to state data.
Officials said a variant strain of the virus that emerged in the United Kingdom and South Africa, prompting global concern, has not yet shown up in L.A. County testing. But Ferrer on Thursday said the strain, which has been reported as close as San Diego, was likely it will appear here, given its higher transmissibility.
The county update did not include new figures for Long Beach and Pasadena, which operate their own health departments. Pasadena’s fatalities soared by 10, raising the city’s death toll to 167. The city also reported 225 new cases, for a total of 6,879. Long Beach reported 692 cases, for a total of 32,368, and four new fatalities, raising the city’s death toll to 395.
Even as they essentially made an open plea for assistance to bolder staff, officials described a surreal disaster unfolding in communities from Lancaster to the South Bay.
Dr. Cathy Chidester, director of the county’s Emergency Medical Services Agency — which coordinates the county’s 9-1-1 responses among hospitals and fire departments — described a “hidden disaster,” out of public view but where “our hospitals are in the eye of the COVID storm.”
“It’s not a fire. It’s not an earthquake. It’s not a train wreck that’s right in the public view and they can see what is happening, and they can avoid the area,” she said. “It’s all happening behind the doors of households and hospitals. So the general public cannot really see what’s going on.”
That scene might look serene from the outside, she said. But inside hospitals, beyond empty parking lots and lobbies, emergency rooms are overwhelmed, staffs scrambling for staff and space, and in the rear of hospital facilities, where ambulances are often lined up.
“It’s overwhelming,” she said. “You can see the look in staff’s eyes. They are overwhelmed. They are pale. They are trying to do the best they can with limited resources at this point because they are just so many patients. It is just heart-wrenching what is happening inside our hospitals.”
Because it’s all happening away from public view, Chidester said from the outside it’s hard to conceive of the scale of the crisis — ranging from lack of staff to lack of pressure for vital ventilators because so many patients are in need of oxygen.
“There’s no doubt, we are in the midst of a disaster,” she said, adding that hospitals were not built to accommodate this many people at one time. In fact, she lamented regulations that are hindering hospital’s ability to adapt because they were established in “normal times.”
“But I am sad to tell you, these are not normal times,” she added.
That was clear as Dr. Christina Ghaly on Thursday announced that the hospitals are so taxed that county has reassigned more than 700 nurses from county-run primary clinics to be deployed in strained inpatient units at hospitals. It’s a move that dilute services for non-COVID-19-realted treament for non-urgen care, Ghaly said.
“We don’t have a better option,” she said.
The county is also leaning on assistance from the state’s Office of Emergency Services and the Health and Human Services Agency, which have deployed 1,280 medical personnel to healthcare facilities across the state. These personnel are helping to ensure necessary healthcare staffing for hospitals, nursing homes and other medical facilities because of COVID-19.
Los Angeles and Orange counties have received 281 of the “surge staff” and 542 more personnel are deployed across other parts of Southern California, officials said.
Still, with the numbers so high, officials are warning of longer 911 response times as ambulances are forced to wait hours as to get their patient treated at strapped hospitals.
Officials continued to plead with people to stay home, concerned that yet another holiday from New Year’s gathering will force hospitals into crisis care protocols.
In his 83rd and final COVID-19 briefing of 2020, Mayor Eric Garcetti urged Angelenos this week to stay home on New Year’s Eve to prevent a further surge in cases and deaths, and he warned that police will be enforcing a ban on large gatherings.
According to the mayor, in anticipation of the holiday, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer asked Eventbrite to remove invitations to New Year’s Eve parties from its website. And Garcetti said the Los Angeles Police Department “will have a significant deployment” to find and stop large gatherings and parties.
“Nobody should be gathering at a big party, and nobody should be gathering in a small party, as well. These are the ways that this virus will spread to your loved ones,” he said. “Some who won’t be taken from us will spread to others and those people will be taken from us. It’s all it takes to set off a dangerous and often deadly chain of events.”
Garcetti also urged conservative evangelical Christian singer Sean Feucht to cancel his planned series of New Year concerts for unsheltered people in Los Angeles.
Despite warnings against public gatherings amid surging COVID-19 cases, dozens of people — many without masks — gathered at Echo Park Lake Thursday at a musical and homeless-outreach event organized by Feucht.
“There are constitutionally protected rights, both religion and protest, which clearly he has used and exercised, but just because we do have the right to do things, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. So I would encourage him first and foremost to come back, have a good concert after this pandemic is done,” Garcetti said.
Coronavirus testing on New Year’s Day will go dark at most locations.
But a COVID-19 rapid-testing facility with an on-site lab capable of producing results in 3-5 hours launched Thursday at Los Angeles International Airport.
The $125 nasal swab tests are administered and processed at the airport, and LAWA officials called the purpose-built on-site lab “a first-of-its-kind for airports.” Tests are available between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily.
The testing facility and lab are located in a modular shipping container structure across the street from Terminal 6 on the Lower/Arrivals level, between parking structures 6 and 7. The building has shade coverings outside and floor markers to ensure physical distance between people in line.
The lab can process about 1,000 tests a day, and people will receive their results electronically within hours.
“The lab is right there with the collection facility so people will be able to have their test done much faster than if their samples had to be sent off airport property,” LAWA’s Charles Pannunzio told City News Service.
The Dodger Stadium COVID-19 testing site, the largest in the U.S., will close Saturday and reopen Monday for restructuring to alleviate traffic in the area. The site has administered 1 million COVID-19 tests since May, according to Garcetti.
Residents in the area have expressed concern about traffic caused by the site, so it will be closed over the weekend to be restructured and for testing operations to be rerouted.
“The Dodgers are committed to doing our part in the battle against COVID-19 by ensuring that testing continues to be available to all Angelenos, especially with the ongoing surge in cases and increase in demand for testing in Los Angeles,” Los Angeles Dodgers President and CEO Stan Kasten said.
“Surpassing one million tests at Dodger Stadium is a sobering reminder of just how many families have been affected by this terrible pandemic, and we thank the city and all our partners on the frontlines that continue to provide lifesaving services to our community.”
City News Service contributed to this story.