In the space of two months, Los Angeles County went from making significant progress in the fight against COVID-19, to stumbling to the point where the healthcare system is at risk of being overwhelmed. The number of new cases recorded in November was more than three times that tallied in September.
In the just-concluded month, the region saw 93,301 new COVID-19 cases, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. That marks the highest monthly total since the coronavirus began spreading across the region in March.
The previous record was the 84,952 cases identified in July.
After that, the numbers fell, as did the level of hospitalizations. In September, the county saw 28,531 new cases, the lowest total since May. October brought 37,319 cases.
The November tally is more than the previous two months combined.
Monthly new COVID-19 cases, March-November
Los Angeles County Director of Public Health Dr. Barbara Ferrer is among those sounding the alarm bells.
“We are at the most difficult moment in the pandemic,” Ferrer said in the department’s prepared briefing on Nov. 30. “The virus is running rampant through almost every part of our county and our most sensible course of action is to make sure that everyone is always masked when they are around any others outside their household.”
The rising number of cases has also led to a spike in hospitalizations; it generally takes weeks until someone diagnosed with COVID-19 is sick enough to require hospital care.
On Tuesday, the Public Health department reported that 2,316 people are being treated in area hospitals, a new record surpassing the previous high in July, and on Thursday the tally climbed to 2,572. According to the department, on Nov. 1 there were 799 people hospitalized. A post-spring low of 673 hospitalizations was recorded just over two months ago, on Oct. 4.
In his Nov. 23 coronavirus update, Mayor Eric Garcetti warned that if the current rate of acceleration continues, the county could be out of hospital beds by Christmas. He said the idea of using the Convention Center as a field hospital, which was on the table during the virus’ initial spring surge, could again be put in play.
If a saturation point occurs, Garcetti said, “we can add more hospital beds, and the hospitals themselves are preparing. They can also adjust beds, adjust more to be for COVID-19 patients, and places like our Convention Center could be for non-COVID patients or those recovering and no longer infectious. So we can absolutely surge that field hospital up again if necessary.”
Looking at a lockdown
The rising caseload in Los Angeles County, where more than 400,000 people have contracted COVID-19, is similar to the surge being felt across the country. Various types of shutdowns on gatherings or business limitations have been threatened or ordered in numerous states.
California has now recorded 1.26 million total cases, along with more than 19,400 deaths, according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard. On Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a regional stay-at-home order for counties where available ICU beds are growing scarce. The move, which applies to hard-hit territories including Los Angeles County, sets more restrictions on businesses and personal gatherings. They will be in effect for at least three weeks.
Although hospitals are filling up, the monthly death toll has not yet risen to the height of the summer. In November, 585 people died of COVID-19 in Los Angeles County. That eclipsed the 495 who died in October, but is less than half of the 1,252 people who succumbed in July.
Monthly new COVID-19 deaths, March-November
However, deaths are what is known as a “lagging indicator,” and often it can be a month or more until someone who contracts the coronavirus dies as a result of it. That helps explain why November, which saw a record number of new cases, had the second lowest death total since April.
There are signs that the lagging indicator is catching up. In the eight days between Nov. 24 and Dec. 1, the number of deaths surpassed 45 three times. The last time there were even 40 deaths in a day was Sept. 22.
Elected officials and public health leaders worry that the situation could worsen as infections increase in the wake of Thanksgiving gatherings. On Tuesday, the county saw a single-day high of new cases, with 7,593.
That record lasted just two days, and Thursday brought 7,854 new cases.
How we did it: We examined data from the daily coronavirus updates provided by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health from March 4-Dec. 1, compiling monthly figures with reports from the last day of each month. In some cases the department later updated its figures.