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An alarming spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations in Los Angeles County has prompted concern about a potential surge in deaths, county health director Barbara Ferrer said Wednesday.

Though the seven-day average number of daily deaths attributed to the coronavirus has been on a downward trajectory, health officials are worried that the rate of deaths may go back up because of the higher rate of hospitalizations, the health director said.

The number of daily of hospitalizations has been steadily rising since July 1 and the three-day average of people being hospitalized is now at over 1,900 patients. In previous months, there were usually between 1,350 and 1,450 people hospitalized for COVID-19 throughout the county on any given day.

“This is more people hospitalized each day for COVID-19 than really at any other point in the pandemic,” Ferrer said.

There were 2,004 people hospitalized for the respiratory illness Tuesday — 26% of them in intensive care units and 17% on ventilators.

The county has seen a small increase in the number of deaths, but the data on fatalities usually lags behind, Ferrer said.

Even as the data in recent weeks showed a decrease in COVID-19 deaths, it hasn’t been the same for people of all races in the county.

While coronavirus death rates for Black and Latino residents have declined, Ferrer said the decrease wasn’t as big as that seen among white residents. “This is frightening in the growing disproportionality that’s experienced by Blacks and Latinos here in L.A. County,” she said.

(L.A. County Department of Public Health)
(L.A. County Department of Public Health)

“We’re entering a phase in which we’re seeing community spread and hospitalizations like we saw in late April — and what we hoped would be the height of infection here in L.A. County,” Ferrer said. “But as you’ve noted this week with us, our cases are rising, the rate of infection is increasing, and the number of hospitalizations are up.”

Ferrer’s grim warnings came as L.A. County recorded 2,496 new coronavirus cases and another 65 deaths Wednesday, bringing the countywide total to 123,004 cases with 3,642 deaths. On Tuesday, officials announced a record one-day increase of 4,015 confirmed cases.

The large number of cases reported Tuesday was partly attributed to one lab reporting a backlog of about 2,000 test results from days before.

But conditions in the nation’s most populous county have continued to worsen over the past weeks, with the coronavirus positivity rate — the percentage of those tested who were found to be infected — continuing to climb.

The average seven-day daily positivity rate climbed to 10.4% Wednesday, down from the previous day’s 11.6% — but a marked increase from recent weeks.

Ferrer said the county is now at a “very critical juncture.”

While hospitalizations for the respiratory illness are at “at an all time high,” projections by the county show a “leveling off” that could mean hospitals may not be overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients in the coming weeks — only if the county avoids another surge in infections, Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly said.

“We do believe still that our hospital system, even at those higher bands of uncertainty, is still prepared and able to care for the expected and potential incoming number of patients who need care for COVID as well as non-COVID related illnesses,” Ghaly said.

The troubling trend has forced officials to hold back on reopening more spaces as they urged residents to adhere to guidelines aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.

“The evidence is very clear now that if everyone wore a mask and continued physical distancing, our infection rates would go down, and that would allow us to reopen our economy,” county Supervisor Hilda Solis said.

Data shared by the health department showed that more people started leaving their homes in recent weeks and younger residents are increasingly becoming infected, raising concerns that they could transmit the virus to older residents and people with underlying medical conditions that put them at risk of becoming seriously ill or dying.

Though the majority of L.A. County residents who have died of COVID-19 had underlying health conditions, health officials warned that 7% of those who died did not.

“That 7% represents dozens and dozens of people who may have thought that they were at no risk for having serious illness and even dying for COVID-19, but unfortunately this virus can affect many many different people,” Ferrer said.

Ghaly said that while younger people are usually healthier and “thus better able to fight the virus,” they could still become seriously ill or infect others with compromised immune systems who could die.

“We need our residents to repeat what we did just weeks ago if we are going to flatten the curve again. If we can’t get the infection numbers back under control by the end of July, we will see thousands more people that require hospitalizations and that could easily overwhelm our health care system,” Ferrer said.