Pulmonologist Dr. Laren Tan leaves a COVID-19 patient's room after checking on the patents oxygen levels in the ICU at Loma Linda University Medical Center on Dec. 15, 2020 in Loma Linda.

LOS ANGELES – As parts of Northern California began to see the first guarded signs of progress in the battle against the winter coronavirus surge, communities in hard-hit Southern California were bracing for more cases to swarm hospitals already overwhelmed as COVID-19 continues to rise.

The post-Christmas surge is still slamming Los Angeles and surrounding counties. The spread is increasing again as people infected during holiday events test positive. Officials expect that will lead to more hospitalizations, but how much remains a critical question because medical infrastructure is already at the breaking point.

Any new spike in infections, officials warn, will trigger a resulting wave of new patients requiring professional care – creating an unsustainable strain on already overtaxed hospitals and intensive care units.

On Tuesday, a tally of local health jurisdictions found 318 deaths reported in L.A. County, tying the record single-day high of deaths recorded on Friday.

Daily coronavirus cases are also increasing. On Tuesday, 14,134 new coronavirus cases were recorded in L.A. County. That pushed the county’s average to more than 15,000 cases a day over the past week, one of the worst daily averages recorded in L.A. County and a warning sign of a future surge of hospitalizations.

Officials had forecast that averaging 15,000 cases a day would likely be a precursor to an even worse surge in hospitalizations. So far, that has not materialized, but officials expect that could soon change.

But to the north, the news was not quite as dire.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday that the state was lifting its stay-at-home order for Greater Sacramento effective immediately, making the region the first to emerge from the restrictions on businesses and activities imposed in hopes of blunting the coronavirus surge.

The counties included in the region – Alpine, Amador, Butte, Colusa, El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Sacramento, Sierra, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba – will return to the state’s color-coded tier framework that determines how widely commercial and public spaces can reopen.

“California remains in its most intense surge to date,” Newsom said in a brief video message announcing the move. “But there are some good things to report. We’re starting to see some stabilization both in ICUs [and] in our positivity rate. We’re also starting to see the rate of growth for hospitalizations beginning to decline.”

As of Tuesday, Greater Sacramento had more than 9% of its ICU beds available, and was projected to have an available capacity of at least 15% four weeks from now – the criteria to exit the stay-at-home order. The move will permit counties to allow for the reopening of hair salons and barbershops in a limited capacity and allow other businesses, including restaurants, to resume some outdoor operations.

San Francisco also had encouraging data. Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco’s director of public health, said that while coronavirus cases rose by 70% after Thanksgiving, they rose only by 28% since Christmas and New Year’s.

“The rate of increase is not as severe as after Thanksgiving,” Mayor London Breed said at a media briefing Tuesday. “This is some good news.”

But the Bay Area continues with the stay-at-home rules because available intensive care unit capacity across the region is still critical – at less than 5%.

For instance, in Santa Clara County, conditions in hospitals are still strained. The morgues at three hospitals are at capacity and four others are near capacity, said Dr. Ahmad Kamal, the county health preparedness director.

In fact, there are so many COVID-19 patients in Silicon Valley’s hospitals, they have effectively squeezed out non-COVID patients from the ICU, Kamal said.

“This means that either their care is being deferred or that they are being taken care of at a level of care that is less than one would ideally want,” Kamal said. The consequences of deferring important medical care will become apparent in the months and years to come, “because these people are going to get sicker and their needs are going to increase.”

But on the positive side, while hospitalizations are still worsening, the increase is “not as fast” as it was, Kamal said.

Statewide, officials said there is some initial evidence the Christmas spike has not been as bad as the Thanksgiving spike.

The number of coronavirus-positive patients hospitalized throughout California has plateaued at just under 22,000, and new COVID-19 admissions have also declined – from roughly 3,500 new hospitalized patients a day last week to between 2,500 and 2,600, according to Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s health and human services secretary.

Recommended for you