Los Angeles continued to see an Omicron-fueled surge in coronavirus cases Saturday, as staffing shortages necessitated the deployment of California National Guard troops to testing sites and led the state to permit hospitals to relax rules about letting infected workers return to work.
County public health officials said they had recorded more than 200,000 new coronavirus cases over the past seven days, the highest one-week total of the pandemic. Hospitalizations doubled during the period, to 3,200 patients as of Friday. More than 20% of coronavirus tests are returning positive results, the county said.
On Saturday, L.A. County reported 34,448 new cases and 16 related deaths; however, officials said the true numbers are likely higher due to delays in reporting over the holiday and weekend.
“Our hearts remain with those families experiencing the sorrow of losing those they love to COVID,” Barbara Ferrer, the county public health director, said in a statement. She reminded residents and businesses to continue following safety measures, including wearing medical-grade masks and avoiding those who are not masked.
Experts stress that although case counts are higher than they were during last winter’s peak, when L.A. County was recording about 16,000 a day, fewer people are becoming severely ill from the Omicron variant. Even the hospitalization numbers don’t tell the whole story, as some counties are seeing a growing percentage of people entering hospitals with a coronavirus infection but being treated for something other than COVID-19.
The surge has combined with pandemic-related staffing shortages to strain L.A. County’s healthcare system and testing infrastructure. In a bid to relieve the pressure, teams of up to four California National Guard soldiers and airmen were at four L.A.-area testing sites Saturday assisting with tasks including traffic control, intake and processing, said Lt. Col. Jonathan Shiroma, chief of media relations for the California National Guard. Those who are qualified can perform swabbing, he said.
“Our soldiers are busy — that’s probably the best way to put it,” he said.
The Guard has been assisting the California governor’s office with coronavirus-related missions for almost two years, he noted.
“Our soldiers and airmen have done an awesome job in rising to the occasion to be there for the community when they’re needed,” he said. “These communities are where our soldiers and airmen live, so they are very much a part of giving back and doing what they can to make a difference. It’s been a long stretch, but they are really stepping up to the task.”
The teams were among 200 California National Guard members Gov. Gavin Newsom said he would deploy to 50 testing sites around the state. The troops have also been tasked with providing interim clinical staffing while permanent staffers are hired, as well as filling in for staff who are absent. More Guard members are expected to be deployed next week.
In a separate attempt to address what it described as critical staffing shortages, the state Department of Public Health issued new guidance that permits hospitals and skilled nursing facilities to direct healthcare workers who have been exposed to or tested positive for the coronavirus, and are asymptomatic, to return to work immediately, without isolation or additional testing.
The workers must wear N95 respirators and should ideally interact only with coronavirus-positive patients. However, the state acknowledged that this might not be possible in the event of extreme staffing shortages or in settings like emergency departments, where it’s not always immediately clear which patients are infected.
The facilities that adopt the relaxed rules must first consider modifications to nonessential procedures and make every attempt to bring in additional contract or registry staff, the state said in the guidance, which took effect Saturday and will stay in place through Feb. 1.
The new recommendation from the state aligns with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, issued in December, that allows for no work restrictions on asymptomatic infected or exposed healthcare workers if staffing at healthcare facilities falls to crisis levels.
The California Department of Public Health said in a statement that it was grateful to all healthcare workers who have worked tirelessly to help residents during the pandemic.
“While vaccines continue to protect against serious illness, hospitals are reaching capacity and staffing shortages are making it difficult to treat those who need essential care,” the statement said. “Given those conditions, the department is providing temporary flexibility to help hospitals and emergency services providers respond to an unprecedented surge and staffing shortages.”
The California Nurses Assn. called on the state Public Health Department to rescind the new guidance, saying it would guarantee more infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
“We want to care for our patients and see them get better — not potentially infect them,” Cathy Kennedy, one of the union’s presidents, said in a statement. “Sending nurses and other healthcare workers back to work while infected is dangerous. If we get sick, who will be left to care for our patients and community?”
Times staff writers Rong-Gong Lin II and Luke Money contributed to this report.