Los Angeles County is seeing a surge of new coronavirus cases as testing expands, with institutional settings such as nursing homes and prisons being particularly hard hit.
Health officials Wednesday announced the largest increase in new coronavirus cases reported in a single day since the pandemic began, pushing the county’s total number of infections past 22,400.
Los Angeles County continues to be the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis in California, with cases and deaths jumping significantly even as other parts of the state see cases declining.
Public Health Department Director Barbara Ferrer announced 1,541 new confirmed COVID-19 cases Wednesday, nearly 1,000 more than what was reported the previous day. The increase is mostly the result of a boost in testing as well as a lag in weekend reporting.
One of the hardest-hit areas is the federal prison at Terminal Island, where more than half of the inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. The Los Angeles facility now has nation’s worst outbreak in the federal penitentiary system.
As of Tuesday, 570 of the prison’s 1,055 inmates had the virus, along with 10 staff members. Two inmates have died of complications related to the virus, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Both had pre-existing medical conditions, officials said.
Nationwide, 1,534 federal inmates and 343 Bureau of Prisons staff members have tested positive.
Inmate Michael Fleming, 59, died of COVID-19 symptoms at a hospital Sunday, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Fleming was serving a 20-year sentence for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine. He tested positive for the coronavirus April 8.
His death follows that of 73-year-old Bradley James Ghilarducci, who died last week. Ghilarducci was serving an eight-year sentence for receiving and distributing child sexual abuse imagery.
Ferrer said the “large increase” in those testing positive at the Terminal Island prison is a reflection of a boost in testing for those even without visible symptoms. That testing began there last week, she said.
“The vast majority of them are asymptomatic,” she said. She did not say how many of those testing positive have been hospitalized.
Inmates told their families that a military-style medical facility was being erected in the prison yards to cope with the burgeoning number of sick.
One inmate serving time for a white-collar offense told a family member in a letter that he contracted the coronavirus. “If I don’t make it I’ll see you upstairs, take care of mom, my girl and the kids,” he wrote.
The wife of an inmate, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, said the inmate told her that “it was really bad and worse than they are saying.” Inmates are locked down and are getting food in sack lunches. On one night, he told her, a dozen inmates were taken to the hospital.
Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragan (D-San Pedro), who represents the area, wrote on Twitter: “This is not acceptable. It is clear they are not making sure these inmates are protected. The government has a responsibility to protect people in its care, including inmates."
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) called on federal officials to "provide immediate care and treatment" at Terminal Island.
Officials are also trying to step up testing at nursing homes, where 40% of Los Angeles County's deaths have occurred.
County health officials also reported 56 additional fatalities linked to the virus Wednesday, bringing the county’s death toll to 1,056.
Of those who most recently died, 41 were older than 65, nine were 41 to 65 and two were 18 to 40. Information about the other cases wasn’t immediately available. Residents in institutional settings, including assisted living facilities and nursing homes, account for 47% of all county deaths, Ferrer said.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced Wednesday that all county residents can now get free coronavirus testing
at city-run sites. Until now, only residents with symptoms as well as essential workers and those in institutional settings such as nursing homes could be tested.
Officials say expanded testing is essential to getting a better sense of how many people have the virus — data that could be used to ease stay-at-home rules.
Under the new guidelines, priority for the same- or next-day testing will still be given to people with symptoms, such as a fever, cough and shortness of breath.
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday urged Californians to stay home and practice physical distancing to avoid spoiling the progress the state has made to prevent the spread of the coronavirus as he prepares to allow some businesses to gradually reopen.
“Why put ourselves in that position when we are just a week or two away from significant modifications of our stay-at-home [order], where we can begin a Phase 2, beginning to reopen sectors of our economy that are low risk?” Newsom said.
The governor has been critical of Orange County, where tens of thousands flocked to the beaches last weekend.
Laguna Beach officials on Tuesday voted to reopen the city’s beaches for several hours on weekday mornings after a six-week closure. Several miles north in Newport Beach, city leaders voted to keep their beaches open despite Newsom's rebuke.
Times staff writers Taryn Luna, Jaclyn Cosgrove, Iris Lee, Rong-Gong Lin II and Luke Money contributed to this report.