L.A. County breaks single-day coronavirus case record as new restrictions loom

Los Angeles County broke another record for daily coronavirus cases Thursday, the same day state officials unveiled new guidelines that soon could subject the county — along with the rest of Southern California — to additional limits on businesses and activities in a bid to beat back the pandemic’s strongest surge.

County health officials reported 7,854 new coronavirus cases, the second time in three days the daily total has surpassed 7,500.

“I can’t emphasize this enough: Everyone must take personal steps to protect themselves from getting and spreading this virus to others,” L.A. County Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis said during a briefing. “Actions need to be taken now and on a daily basis.”

Along with the staggering case count — which boosted the county’s infection total above 420,000 — hospitalizations also continue to hit new highs.

There are 2,572 patients with a confirmed case in hospitals countywide, according to the latest tally. That number has more than doubled from two weeks ago.

Over the same period, the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units has swelled by 72% — from 349 to 601, according to data compiled by The Times.

County officials have said it’s that latter number that’s particularly alarming.

Though hospitals can increase capacity should the need arise, they cannot perpetually do so. ICUs present a particular challenge, as they typically need specialized space, staff and equipment.

“If steps to curb transmission are abandoned, then the number of people requiring hospitalization can still overwhelm any additional capacity that hospitals are able to create,” Dr. Christina Ghaly, the county’s director of health services, said Wednesday.

The continued coronavirus surge in California’s most populous county comes as the state implemented sweeping new guidelines aimed at turning the tide of the pandemic.

The rules — which come into play when a region sees its available ICU capacity drop below 15% — will limit an array of activities for at least 21 days.

L.A. is grouped into the wider Southern California region, along with Imperial, Inyo, Mono, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

If a region’s capacity is stretched beyond the state-set limit, affected communities would be required to close personal service businesses, playgrounds, family entertainment centers and campgrounds for overnight stays. Restaurants would have to go back to takeout service only.

Retail businesses would be limited to 20% of their capacity inside at any one time, with requirements to ensure there’s no indoor drinking or eating.

Southern California is projected to fall below 15% ICU capacity early this month — perhaps as soon as the next day or two, Gov. Gavin Newsom said.

“The bottom line is, if we don’t act now, our hospital system will be overwhelmed,” he said in announcing the guidelines Thursday. “If we don’t act now, we’ll continue to see a death rate climb, more lives lost.”

Many of the state’s new provisions are already part of the targeted safer-at-home orders the city and county of Los Angeles have previously unveiled.

“A lot of it looks similar to some of the things that we’re already doing and have implemented in Los Angeles County — with some additional measures,” Davis said. “I think this does get closer to what we saw earlier on in the pandemic in terms of more businesses being temporarily closed.”

One difference, for instance, would be personal service businesses such as hair and nail salons, which are currently allowed to remain open with modifications. Those would be closed if L.A. County falls under the scope of the new state order.

Additionally, though L.A. County has already tightened capacity limits at nonessential retail, the state regulations would further lower the indoor cap at stores considered essential — from 25% to 20%.

Jurisdictions are allowed to adopt rules that are stricter than the state’s, but they cannot be more lenient.

The thrust of both the state and local orders, officials say, is that residents should stay home as much as possible and venture out only for essential tasks, or to exercise safely.

“The choices between us are stark, between health and sickness, between care and apathy and, yes, between life and death for too many of the people that we love,” L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said during a briefing Wednesday. “My message couldn’t be simpler: It’s time to hunker down. It’s time to cancel everything and, if it isn’t essential, don’t do it.”

The county’s recently imposed rules have already come under fire. Some have criticized what they consider contradictions, such as outdoor public playgrounds being closed while malls can still welcome crowds of shoppers. A renewed ban on outdoor dining has been the subject of particular ire.

L.A. County health officials say they’ve tried to strike a balance between economic and public health, but stress that their focus is stymieing the spread of the coronavirus and, ultimately, saving lives.

Newsom stressed that the new limitations, though painful, “are limited in scope and time,” particularly given that the state is weeks away from receiving its initial batch of COVID-19 vaccines.

“This is the final surge. We have a light at the end of the tunnel with these vaccines,” he said. “But we need to take seriously this moment. This is the most challenging moment since the beginning of this pandemic. This is the time … to put aside your doubt, to put aside your skepticism, to put aside your cynicism, to put aside your ideology, to put aside any consideration except this: Lives are in the balance. Lives will be lost unless we do more than we’ve ever done.”

How much public appetite there is for more stringent restrictions remains to be seen.

Policymakers and public health officials have long warned of the consequences of pandemic fatigue and emphasized that the only path forward is through collective vigilance and a doubling down on infection prevention protocols — including wearing masks in public, regularly washing your hands and staying home when you’re sick, as well as keeping distance from, and avoiding gatherings with, those outside your household.

“We’re not asking you to live in fear; we’re asking you to take the precautions needed to prevent the continued spread of this virus,” Davis said. “If more of us take these steps, we stand a very good chance of seeing transmission rates decline.”

Times staff writers Rong-Gong Lin II, John Myers and Dakota Smith contributed to this report.

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