LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County ramped up vaccination efforts Tuesday in its battle against the coronavirus, opening five large-scale vaccine sites to complement 75 smaller locations and the high-capacity center opened by the city at Dodger Stadium. County officials are also expanding testing for people ages 65 and older.
The new centers are located at Six Flags Magic Mountain; California State University, Northridge; the Pomona Fairplex; the L.A. County Office of Education in Downey; and the Forum in Inglewood.
The openings come at a critical stage in the county's fight against COVID-19, with transmission rates remaining high and the number of cases and deaths continuing to increase rapidly. Hospitalizations dipped slightly over the past week, but health officials still fear a resurgence in medical center admissions because of infections that occurred over the Christmas and New Year's holidays.
Over the weekend, the county confirmed the first local case of a variant strain of the virus first detected in the United Kingdom. That strain, known of B.1.1.7, is not considered more deadly, but it is far more contagious and passes easily from person to person with the potential to spread rapidly among the population.
On Monday night, officials at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center announced that they have identified yet another strain of the virus, known as CAL.20C, which was detected in more than one-third of the COVID-19 patients being treated at the hospital. The strain was also found in about one-fourth of samples from COVID-19 patients across Southern California.
"The recent surge in COVID-19 positive cases in Southern California coincides with the emergence of CAL.20C," Eric Vail, a physician and assistant professor of pathology and director of molecular pathology in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Cedars-Sinai, said in a statement released Monday.
Cedars-Sinai officials said the CAL.20C strain is distinct from the U.K. variant. It's still unclear if the CAL.20C strain spreads more quickly, is deadlier or is resistant to current virus treatments. But Cedars-Sinai researchers said the strain is partly responsible for the large surge in cases the county has experienced over the last two months. Hospital officials said the strain was virtually nonexistent in the county in October, but by December it represented 36.4 percent of COVID-19 cases at Cedars-Sinai and 24 percent of COVID-19 samples collected across Southern California.
The strain has also been detected in patients in Northern California, New York, Washington and abroad in Oceania, according to Cedars-Sinai.
Los Angeles County crossed the 1 million mark in cumulative cases during the pandemic over the weekend. Although that milestone represents about one-tenth of the county's overall population, modeling released last week estimated that as many as one-third of residents have actually been infected at some point, with many of them never knowing it but still capable of spreading the virus to others.
With at least 10 percent of COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalization, higher case numbers will translate into higher hospitalization numbers and, ultimately, more deaths.
Increasing deaths from the virus prompted a grim move on Sunday by Southland air quality regulators, who lifted the cap on the number of bodies local crematories could burn. Crematories normally operate under a limit designed to reduce the effect of cremations on air quality.
The Board of Supervisors was scheduled to meet in closed session Tuesday morning to discuss a variety of topics. The board was expected last week to discuss possible new health restrictions — such as closing indoor malls and other nonessential retail businesses — but took no immediate action. It was unclear if the topic would be discussed at Tuesday's meeting.
Meanwhile, the Department of Public Health will host a virtual town hall Tuesday at 6 p.m. to discuss the COVID-19 vaccine, how it was developed, where it will be distributed and when it will be made available to the general public. The town hall will be streamed live on the department's Twitter, Facebook and YouTube pages. People can also submit questions before the meeting.
The county reported 88 more COVID-19 deaths and 9,927 new infections Monday, noting that the figures could be artificially low because of a lag in reporting from the weekend and the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Current hospitalizations in the county stood at 7,328 as of Monday, county officials reported.
The new deaths, along with one reported by health officials in Pasadena, lifted the county's overall death toll to 13,937. Los Angeles County's new cases, along with 107 confirmed by Pasadena, raised the cumulative number of cases confirmed in the county since the pandemic began to 1,024,297.
According to the state, there were 7,322 people hospitalized due to COVID-19 as of Monday, continuing a downward trend from the past week. Hospitalizations peaked at more than 8,000 in early January, putting pressure on hospitals across the county, forcing ambulances to wait hours to offload patients and prompting medical centers to care for patients in gift shops and cafeterias.
But while the population of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has been trending downward, intensive care units remain packed with virus patients. According to the state, there were 1,728 COVID-19 patients in ICUs in the county, which has about 2,500 licensed ICU beds.
Health officials have said in recent weeks that about two-thirds of ICU patients in the county are being treated for COVID-19, leaving little room for people in need of ICU care for other reasons.
Authorities have warned that while new hospital admissions had appeared to level off, the numbers could again shoot upward as people who were infected over the Christmas and New Year's holidays begin developing symptoms and require medical care.
The county announced a key milestone in its vaccination efforts Monday. According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, nearly 99 percent of the skilled nursing facilities in the county had administered first doses of the vaccine to residents and staff. The five remaining nursing homes will be administering shots this week.
And late Monday, Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda Solis issued an order making COVID-19 vaccines available to anyone 65 and older, starting Thursday — despite health officials' concerns about the supply of doses.
Solis' decision was in line with guidance released last week by Gov. Gavin Newsom. But it conflicted with comments by county health officials, who wanted to wait until vaccinations of frontline health care workers were completed before offering limited vaccine supplies to a wider array of people.
Concerns about the supply of vaccines was heightened late Sunday, when the state epidemiologist warned providers to stop administering doses from a batch of 330,000 Moderna vaccines in response to allergic reactions suffered by a handful of people in San Diego.
The 330,000 doses of Moderna vaccine no longer available represent 10 percent of all the vaccines received by the state so far — dealing a blow to counties such as Los Angeles that have been requesting more vaccine allocations to keep up with demand.
So short is the supply that the operators of the vaccination clinic at Dodger Stadium warned over the weekend they could run out of doses as early as Wednesday.
The affected Moderna vaccines were distributed to 287 locations across California. It was unclear if any of those locations were in Los Angeles County.
Due to high winds Tuesday, a COVID-19 vaccination site at Hansen Dam closed for the rest of the day, according to the city Fire Department. All appointments for vaccinations were transferred to the Dodger Stadium vaccine site.
To learn more about the vaccination phases and to make an appointment, visit the website.
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City News Service and Patch Editor Nicole Charky contributed to this report.