After signs of leveling, COVID-19 hospitalizations in L.A. County tick back up

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LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 13: Shawna Gibson, RN, an IV and medications for covid19 positive patient inside the covid unit at White Memorial Hospital on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. Today the hospital reported they have 21 covid19 positive patients. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Registered nurse Shawna Gibson prepares an IV and medications for a COVID-19 patient at Adventist Health White Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles on Aug. 13. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

After promising indications of leveling hospitalization numbers, Los Angeles County on Tuesday reported another uptick in new COVID-19 patients.

There are now 1,747 patients in county hospitals, according to the latest state figures, up from 1,724 on Monday.

Officials had hoped that recently waning numbers — including four straight days of declines ending Sunday — indicated a slowdown.

Now that notion seems more tenuous, with the numbers more in line with previous weeks of steady increases driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant.

Also of concern are the number of intensive care patients, which grew by nine on Tuesday, to 463.

The numbers reflect statewide patterns, with California reporting an additional 161 hospitalizations, for a total of 8,245 patients, and an additional 77 people in ICUs, which have 1,991 people admitted.

Orange County's hospitalization numbers declined by six, to 564, but its ICU numbers increased from 116 to 132.

Officials also said that younger adults ages 18 to 49 are now the most likely to get infected with the coronavirus. As of early August, for every 100,000 vaccinated younger adults, nearly 150 were getting infected weekly.

And though there have been some breakthrough infections among the vaccinated, case rates remain much worse among unvaccinated people. One new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that more than 70% of COVID-19 infections between May 1 and July 25 in Los Angeles County were among the unvaccinated, compared with about 25% among fully vaccinated persons.

Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, said the study was significant because it is among the first to examine the efficacy of the vaccines against the Delta variant, particularly in a county as large as Los Angeles.

The study found that unvaccinated people had five times more infections and 29 times more hospitalizations than their fully vaccinated peers on July 25.

“The way you interpret the data is both that breakthroughs have increased infections — no question — but that during that phase of Delta, the vaccine benefit has grown in great magnitude,” Topol said. “The benefit of the vaccine is like 30 times, where it was two times or three times before Delta.”

Compared with partially vaccinated and unvaccinated people, much lower percentages of fully vaccinated people infected with COVID-19 were hospitalized, admitted to an ICU or required mechanical ventilation, according to the study. Researchers said the findings indicated that the vaccines were protective against infection and severe COVID-19 even during a period when transmission of the Delta variant was increasing.

“On the hospitalization side, the protection is very solid still,” Topol said. “The vaccination benefit is striking, more than ever.”

Hospitals in recent weeks have described unsustainable conditions amid a surge fueled by the Delta variant, and county officials are hoping that Monday’s landmark approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine could lead to a wave of vaccinations — either through more mandates or by encouraging some who are vaccine-hesitant to move forward with their shots.

"The COVID-19 vaccine is safe and remains the most powerful tool we have to both lower our risk of infection and protect against serious illness and death from COVID-19 if infected,” L.A. County health officer Dr. Muntu Davis said, adding: “We are grateful to the many scientists and researchers who have worked tirelessly to develop and evaluate the vaccines during the most challenging public health crisis of our lifetime.”

The Pfizer vaccine is the first of the three available COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. to receive FDA approval.

All three vaccines, including those by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, were operating under an emergency-use authorization. Monday’s FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine applies only to people 16 and older, although more approvals are expected in the weeks to come.

To date, nearly 65% of L.A. County residents have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, and 56.5% are fully vaccinated, according to The Times tracker.

The county last week surpassed 25,000 deaths linked to COVID-19. With 18 new deaths reported Tuesday, the overall death toll is now 25,096.

Despite what could have been a leveling off, experts have emphasized the importance of vaccinating as many people as possible and continuing to wear masks in order to prevent further spread of the virus. The Delta variant is highly transmissible, and a fall surge driven by waning immunity and more time spent indoors is still a possibility.

Even if the state were to plateau, it would be at a very high level, said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, a professor of medicine and an infectious diseases specialist at UC San Francisco. The current numbers are still some of the highest since the waning days of the devastating fall and winter surge.

“It’s like walking on a tight-wire rope at a high level," Chin-Hong said, "so if we fall, we could fall hard.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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