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LA’s Available Hospital Beds Have Hit The Lowest Number In Years

A line graph showing hospital bed availability since 2019. Fewer hospital beds are available in 2022 than in the previous years.
Courtesy of the L.A. County Dept. of Public Health)
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COVID-19 case rates dipped slightly in L.A. County in the past week, but health officials warn the trend is unlikely to hold.

Zooming out, current cases are up about 120% from one month ago, indicating very high COVID-19 transmission.

Countywide, COVID-19 case rates and hospitalizations have decreased by 21% and 7%, respectively, over the past week. Whether that trend will hold is an open question. About 3,000 cases were reported each day last week, which is an undercount because it doesn’t include home tests.

“We went up pretty quickly after Thanksgiving, and that reflected all of the additional gatherings and travel over Thanksgiving, and now we've kind of plateaued a little bit,” said Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.

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“I think we may increase again after Dec. 25, as more people are out of school, out of work, taking vacations, traveling and gathering. I don't have any way of knowing exactly how high that will go. A lot of it depends on how many protections people are taking and how careful we all are,” she said.

L.A. County remains for a second week in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ‘High’ community tier. That’s a measure of the strain on hospitals rather than the prevalence of infections, a change the CDC made last February to compensate for the widespread shift to at-home testing.

Emergency Rooms And Hospitals Slammed With Patients

The tripledemic of coronavirus, influenza and R.S.V. continues to sweep through the county, and it’s led to startlingly few hospital beds. On Monday, there were just 242 open adult hospital beds in all of L.A. County. That’s the fewest number in years, said Ferrer.

On the same day, 88 pediatric beds countywide were free to take new patients. Delayed medical care combined with swirling viruses, sick staff, and nurses either retiring or leaving the profession have led to a low for hospital beds since 2020.

About 197 people a day were admitted to hospitals in L.A. County last week, a roughly 7% decrease from a week ago, though December hospital admissions are “significantly higher” this year compared to last, Ferrer said.

Emergency departments have been slammed by “flu-like” illnesses, with patients complaining of fever and cough or fever and sore throat.

The percentage of emergency room visits is over four times higher than at the same time in previous years, and double the peak of the last two seasons, Ferrer said.

Another Child Death

Last week, another child died from COVID-19, bringing the total number of children who have died in the county to 20 since the pandemic began. Overall deaths have increased to 16 reported deaths per day. That’s up from eight deaths reported per day two weeks ago.

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“It's distressing to see that number [is] slightly higher at this point in the winter season than it was last,” Ferrer said. “And it just again indicates for some people, this remains a very deadly disease, and we need to continue to make sure they have access to preventive measures.”

More than 34,400 people have died from COVID-19 in L.A. County since the pandemic began.

A table describing when children are eligible for bivalent boosters.
(Courtesy of the L.A. County Dept. of Public Health)

Boosters And Free Tests

The updated COVID shots are available for anyone 6 months and older, as long as they received the first series of shots at least two months ago. Many pharmacies don’t vaccinate children under 3, so check L.A. County Public Health for sites that offer the shots to small children. About one-third of residents 65 and older have gotten the booster.

Ferrer recommended having COVID tests on hand to use before you hang out with other people. The federal government reopened its free COVID test program. You can sign up to have four free tests shipped to each household.

Masks Work

There is strong evidence that high quality masks such as KN95s and N95s help to reduce the transmission of several respiratory viruses. They work by filtering out the tiny aerosol particles through which the coronavirus is primarily spread, and the larger droplets responsible for flu and R.S.V. transmission.

In past public health press conferences this year, Ferrer has pointed to a study of COVID-19 policies in Boston-area schools, which found that removing a mask mandate in 2022 was tied to nearly 12,000 additional cases among students and staff.

Ferrer urged anyone to put their mask back on, especially those in high-risk households, which include those with adults over the age of 65, pregnant people and people with pre-existing conditions such as diabetes or heart disease, and anyone who is immunocompromised.

When Could The Public Mask Mandate Return To L.A.?

If the share of hospital beds used by patients with COVID-19 rises from 7.2% to 10% and it stays high for two weeks, that could trigger a new indoor mask mandate that could go into effect in January. The last countywide indoor public mask mandate ended in March, after the last winter surge subsided.

What questions do you have about the pandemic and health care?
Jackie Fortiér helps Southern Californians understand the pandemic by identifying what's working and what's not in our health response.