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More people have been ending up in intensive care units in Los Angeles County as the omicron coronavirus variant continues its rapid spread, health officials said Tuesday.

“Let’s not fool ourselves by not recognizing the danger presented by the Omicron variant which is capable of spreading with lightning speed and causing serious illness among our most vulnerable residents,” L.A. County Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement.

There were 4,701 people with COVID-19 hospitalized across the county Tuesday.

Both the seven-day average of new admissions of people with COVID-19 and the total number of patients admitted into the ICU have increased from last week, the L.A. County Department of Public health said, citing data from Monday.

About 31% of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 were in the ICU, 27% of them needing ventilation. That also represents an increase from the week prior.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have recognized that while many experience mild illness from COVID, there are others, who we love and need, that will not do well if they become infected,” Ferrer said. “And while vaccines and boosters provide powerful protection, those who are older, have serious health conditions, or are immunocompromised remain at higher risk.”

Loma Linda Medical Center turned a parking lot into a temporary COVID-19 surge area with tents outside its emergency room, evoking imagery from the last winter surge.

“We’re over 100% capacity on our ICU beds. We have more patients in the ICU level than we actually have ICU beds,” Dr. Adrian Cotton of Loma Linda University Medical Center told KTLA.

Hospitals strained as more workers test positive

Complicating matters for already strained hospitals is that more health care workers have been testing positive for the virus.

At Loma Linda, as much as 12% of staff were testing positive and needing time off to recover, Cotton said.

Countywide, between Jan. 7 and Jan. 13, a total of 1,268 new positive cases were confirmed among health care workers — a 30% increase from the week before.

This has exacerbated staffing shortages across the health care system, officials said.

Hospitals have been so understaffed that the California Department of Public Health on Jan. 8 issued new guidance that let health care workers who test positive for the virus or are exposed to it return to work immediately — without isolation and without testing — if they are asymptomatic and wearing N95 masks.

State officials said the changes, in place through Feb. 1, were made “due to the critical staffing shortages currently being experienced across the health care continuum because of the rise in the Omicron variant.”

But the guidance sparked outcry from L.A. County health care workers, who said letting people work while infected could endanger patients and staff.

The pandemic has also been taking its toll on health care workers for months, with many hospitals struggling to keep up morale.

“This has now gone on for 20 months and there is no end in sight,” Cotton said.

Unvaccinated more likely to end up in ICU

As the highly-contagious omicron variant continues to fuel this latest COVID-19 surge, officials are assuring residents that vaccines continue to provide the best protection against severe illness.

Unvaccinated people have been six times more likely to be admitted to the ICU compared to those fully vaccinated without boosters, according to data from Dec. 30 to Jan. 12.

Those who were both vaccinated and boosted have even more protection, being 25 times less likely to end up in the ICU than unvaccinated people, the health department said.

“We still don’t know the longer-term consequences from Omicron infections, including the development of long COVID or MIS-C among children,” Ferrer said. “So please continue to do your part in slowing the spread of Omicron to help us keep ourselves and our loved ones healthy and out of the hospital.”

She urged residents to wear well-fitted medical-grade masks when indoors or at crowded outdoor locations.

Residents were also advised to curtail high-risk activities as the surge continues.