December was the deadliest month so far of the coronavirus pandemic across most of Southern California, just one of many painful records to be set as 2020 came to a close.
Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties reported almost as many new cases in December — 645,548 — as they had during the whole rest of the pandemic: 658,084 in January through November.
In L.A. County hospitals, every single day of December has brought a new record number of patients with confirmed coronavirus cases being treated. In the other three counties, only a handful of days didn’t set hospitalization records. Intensive-care units also started seeing ever-increasing records of coronavirus patients in mid-December.
Despite a small drop in new cases this week compared to the week before, public health experts aren’t optimistic that January is going to be any better.
“I think we’re in for tough sledding, honestly,” said UC Irvine epidemiologist Andrew Noymer. “… I can’t tell you when things are going to crest and then finally ebb, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that January is going to be a difficult month.”
L.A. County health officials said the lower number of new cases there was mostly due to testing centers being closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and they expect cases to start increasing again because of holiday travel.
In San Bernardino County, where the recent drop in new cases has been most pronounced, officials also don’t see that as a sign the winter surge might be waning.
“We have seen our numbers flatten and even show some decrease in recent days,” Lana Culp, spokesperson for San Bernardino County’s health department, said in an email. “However, we are concerned about another surge in cases following Christmas and New Year holidays. As hospitals are experiencing extreme surges, we all need to do our part in helping our healthcare systems.
“We remind residents that the pandemic is not over and we still strongly urge residents to do their part and avoid gatherings, wear a face covering when conducting essential business, stay 6 feet from others and continue to wash hands with soap and water,” Culp said. “We also continue to urge residents to get tested for COVID-19 so that we can fight further spreading the virus in our community.”
There’s no evidence that the new strain is more dangerous to each individual who gets it, Noymer said. But with thousands of people contracting coronavirus each day, if even the same small percentage of infected people end up hospitalized or dying, the effects of a more contagious strain could be awful.
The surge in cases that began in November worsened exponentially in December. It took Riverside County only nine days to report more cases than it had in any other entire month of the pandemic. Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties followed suit over the next few days.
By month’s end, the totals were staggering: 370,071 new cases in Los Angeles County, 100,706 in San Bernardino County, 96,141 in Riverside County and 78,630 in Orange County. In each of those counties except L.A., December accounts for more than half of the entire case total since the start of the pandemic.
Per capita, San Bernardino County was hardest hit, with 4,542 new cases per 100,000 residents in December. Orange County reported only about half that rate: 2,435 new cases per 100,000 residents.
Better availability of testing probably means that more cases are being identified now than during earlier months of the pandemic. Even so, Noymer said, “Probably one-third of everyone in Southern California who’s ever had COVID has it now.”
Modeling being done by one of his colleagues suggests that something like 2% of Orange County is currently infected, he said. That means if you go somewhere like a grocery store or a gathering with 50 people, odds are that someone has it.
L.A. County — along with Pasadena and Long Beach, which have their own health departments — reported more than twice as many coronavirus deaths in December as in any previous month of the pandemic: 2,703.
Riverside County reported 543 coronavirus deaths, almost 70% more than any other month, and San Bernardino County reported 316, just topping its previous record of 307 deaths in August.
Only Orange County didn’t set a new record for fatalities. Its 298 coronavirus deaths in December is second to the 362 in August.
Early in the month, as L.A. County’s cumulative death toll topped 8,000 people, Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer choked up during a news conference.
“Over 8,000 people who were beloved members of their families are not coming back,” Ferrer said, holding back tears. “And their deaths are an incalculable loss to their friends and their family, as well as our community.”
On Wednesday, the county surpassed 10,000 deaths, and officials said almost as many people are dying every day from coronavirus as from every other cause combined.
The toll in January could be even worse than in December.
Nationally, researchers have found a reliable way to predict coronavirus deaths in the short term. Deaths tend to go up or down about three weeks after cases do, because of the typical time between diagnosis and death, and for that death to be reported to public health agencies.
If the number of people who die from coronavirus is between 1% and 2% of the number of confirmed cases — which an analysis of Southern California’s case and death numbers from recent months bears out — and if that three-week lag doesn’t get any longer, then those four counties could report between about 4,800 and 9,600 more deaths in the next three weeks.
The number of coronavirus patients in the four Southern California counties’ hospitals rose from almost 4,800 on Dec. 1 to more than 12,900 on Wednesday, while the number of those patients requiring ICU care rose from about 1,100 to about 2,700. The increase has been steepest in Orange County hospitals, which are treating three times more coronavirus cases than they were at the start of the month.
The hospital surge has been worse in Southern California than in other parts of the state. Health officials expect that demand for intensive care will continue to exceed Southern California hospitals’ capacity for at least the next four weeks, which is why stay-home orders issued in early December are still in place.
The four Southern California counties got the results of more than 2.6 million tests in December, about 1.1 million more than in November.
In a news conference this week, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the rate of growth in testing statewide is a “point of pride” and listed some of the reasons why high testing rates are beneficial:
“More testing, more surveillance, more accuracy and understanding of community spread. More case numbers, certainly, but a much more honest assessment of where we are in this state,” Newsom said. In contrast, “Less testing, less data collected, less understanding of the virulence of this disease as well as the spread of this disease.”
Source: Orange County Register