More than 6 million cumulative coronavirus cases have now been reported in California, according to data compiled by The Times, as the Omicron variant continues its staggering spread.
The record-setting pace of infections is putting pressure on hospitals, schools and other institutions, which are struggling to maintain full services even as some employees take time off to deal with COVID-19.
On Monday, the state reported 308,820 new infections, a colossal figure that includes data from Saturday and Sunday. State officials said more than 600,000 COVID tests are being reported daily. Los Angeles County hit its own milestone Monday, topping 2 million cases.
“When we look at what is happening as regards to COVID, we know hundreds of thousands of Californians [are] becoming infected,” California Public Health Director Mark Ghaly said Monday. “Thankfully, because of the high level of immunity and vaccination protection, the rate of hospitalization is lower, but that’s with that sheer number of cases. Even with a lower percentage being hospitalized, it still means quite a bit of work, quite a bit of pressure on our healthcare delivery system.”
It was a little less than two months ago that the state recorded its 5 millionth coronavirus case, a threshold that came and went at a time when California was seeing declines in both the daily numbers of newly recorded infections and those hospitalized with COVID-19.
But the arrival of Omicron has reversed those trends with a vengeance, pushing daily caseloads to their highest levels and sending a stream of new coronavirus-positive people to the hospital.
Los Angeles County has reported more than 225,000 new coronavirus cases over the last week, including its three highest single-day totals of the entire pandemic. County health officials announced the latest record, 45,584, on Sunday.
And even such large totals are probably an undercount, officials say, as they don’t include many of those who may have self-diagnosed using an at-home test.
Along with the astronomical rise in infections, California also is seeing a steep rise in hospitalizations, a trend made all the more challenging by coronavirus-related staffing shortages in ambulance services and hospitals.
As of Sunday, 11,048 coronavirus-positive patients were hospitalized statewide, more than triple the number a month ago.
Dr. Edward O. Blews III, a regional physician director for infection prevention and control with the Kaiser Permanente Fontana and Ontario Medical Centers, said that “the overwhelming majority” of their coronavirus cases are the Omicron variant and the bulk of those being hospitalized are unvaccinated.
The emergency room is “very, very, very busy right now,” he said.
“Our numbers aren’t as high as they were during the surge at the end of 2020 in December, but they are still rising at this point,” Blews said. “So we are all beginning to look at processes and ways to continue to deliver healthcare in a safe fashion to the folks that need it while navigating high numbers of hospitalized patients.”
However, officials note that not all of those patients were admitted with COVID-19. Many coronavirus-positive patients are seeking hospital care for other reasons, and their coronavirus diagnoses have been confirmed only because hospitals require incoming patients to be tested.
But even those who have been admitted to hospitals for other reasons place a high burden on the healthcare facilities, according to L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.
“People who test positive for COVID require resource-intensive, transmission-based precautions, including isolation rooms, cohorted staff and personal protective equipment,” she said during a recent briefing.
So far, L.A. County hospitals are seeing far fewer critically ill coronavirus-positive patients than they did a year ago.
During last winter’s COVID-19 surge, about 80% of coronavirus-positive patients in the emergency department at L.A. County-USC Medical Center were being admitted, and nearly half of those went to the intensive care unit, according to Dr. Brad Spellberg, the hospital’s chief medical officer. Now, about a third of coronavirus-positive patients are admitted, and 20% to 25% are going to the ICU.
“That gives you a sense of the difference in magnitude,” he said. “This is why last year was much more stressful in many ways. We did come within a hairsbreadth of triaging patients last year.”
Officials note, though, that hospitalizations are a lagging indicator of coronavirus spread — usually rising about two weeks after an increase in infections.
While available data indicate Omicron tends to cause less severe symptoms, especially in those who have been vaccinated and boosted, than the previously dominant Delta variant, officials worry the magnitude of recent caseloads may counteract that.
“A certain proportion of a large volume of cases, no matter what, are going to be severe,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s top medical advisor.
And regardless of why they’re in the hospital, the sheer number of patients also takes its toll.
Ghaly, California’s health and human services secretary, said last week that the state’s hospital census was approaching the level seen a year ago — even though the number of coronavirus-positive patients remains far lower.
“We are worried about the total hospital census. We are worried with the level of staff infections and the need for isolation and quarantine among the staff,” he said.
With the Omicron surge showing no signs of slowing down, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday deployed members of the California National Guard to support coronavirus-testing efforts at sites throughout the state.
The magnitude of the latest wave also has already prompted state officials to extend a previously issued statewide mask mandate for indoor public spaces through at least Feb. 15.
Officials warn, however, that old, loose-fitting cloth masks, with gaps around the mouth and nose, are too risky to use alone in the Omicron era since the variant can spread so readily.
Times staff writer Hayley Smith contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.