Los Angeles, Orange, and San Francisco counties shatter COVID-19 records as ICU space

Record numbers of patients with COVID-19 were hospitalized this weekend in Los Angeles and Orange counties, and San Francisco hit a high for new coronavirus cases, as space in intensive care units across the state shrunk to dangerous lows.

The figures paint a dire picture just two weeks before Christmas, when holiday travel could ramp up despite warnings from public health officials.

There were 1,236 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Orange County on Sunday and 4,009 in Los Angeles on Friday, according to the latest available numbers — both record highs. San Francisco, which had been a front-runner in coronavirus testing, reported a record of 323 new cases on Saturday.

Intensive care units in Southern California have only 4.2% capacity as of Sunday, falling below the statewide level of 7.4%, according to the California Department of Public Health. Northern California has the highest capacity, with 29%, while the San Joaquin valley has just 1.5%.

Mortality rates could surge if ICUs can no longer accommodate patients. The scarcity is less about physical space and more about a shortage of specially trained nurses to provide 24-hour care. The state’s stay-at-home order went into effect when the ICU capacity in several regions dipped below 15%.

The sobering numbers come as the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine by Pfizer and BioNTech were shipped out of a Michigan factory on Sunday.

“This is the beginning of the end,” Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeted on Sunday about the vaccine shipments. “Let’s crush this curve and get to the finish line.”

Still, public health officials say people need to wear masks and practice distancing. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccine prevents the spread of the disease, and only a small number of doses will be available initially.

California is set to receive about 327,000 doses in its initial batch, to be given to healthcare workers at direct risk of exposure to COVID-19. The state could receive about 2 million doses of vaccine by the end of the month, which would help vaccinate the state’s 2.4 million healthcare workers.

It may be spring or summer before the general public has access to a COVID-19 vaccine, public health officials have said.

Times staff writers Ben Welsh and Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.

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