Registered Nurse Kat Yi holds an iPad up to Eduardo Rojas, 50, so that his wife Angelica Rojas could see him inside the ICU at Providence St. Jude Medical Center on Christmas Day in Fullerton.

LOS ANGELES – Strict limitations on businesses and activities will remain in place throughout Southern California for the foreseeable future as COVID-19 patients continue to flood the region’s health-care system.

While not unexpected, Tuesday’s extension of the stay-at-home order for both Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley illustrates how the worst wave of the pandemic is hammering hospitals and threatening to exhaust the supply of intensive care beds throughout those regions, according to Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s health and human services secretary.

There’s no timetable for when the restrictions could be relaxed. Ghaly said that they are in effect “for the time being” and that the decision to lift them hinges on ICU projections four weeks into the future.

And at this point, “we essentially are projecting that the ICU capacity is not improving in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley, and that demand will continue to exceed capacity,” he said during a briefing Tuesday.

The dire and daunting task facing health care officials in both regions further underscores the state’s precarious pandemic position.

California on Monday again recorded its highest number of new coronavirus infections in a single day, with 66,811. Though that tally included a backlog from the long Christmas weekend, during which many counties did not issue reports, officials have said they expect that in the coming weeks there will be another surge in new infections stemming from gatherings and travel over the winter holidays.

Any significant spikes in coronavirus cases, experts warn, will invariably trigger a corresponding increase in the number of people needing to be hospitalized two to three weeks later. Hospitals statewide are already caring for more than 20,000 coronavirus-positive patients, the greatest number since the pandemic began.

“Frankly, many of the hospital leaders that I’ve talked to in Southern California are bracing for exactly that: a significant surge, a significant need to not only deal with what we’ve seen up until now, but an even more extreme condition in the middle and second part of January,” Ghaly said.

The state-defined Southern California and San Joaquin Valley regions have been under the latest stay-at-home order since Dec. 6.

Those regions cover a combined 23 counties that are home to the bulk of California’s population: Imperial, Inyo, Los Angeles, Mono, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Calaveras, Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Mariposa, Merced, San Benito, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Tulare and Tuolumne.

Officials have said the most recent round of restrictions – which include reduced capacity at retail stores; the closure of some businesses, including hair salons, nail salons, card rooms, museums, zoos and aquariums; and a prohibition on most gatherings, hotel stays for tourism and outdoor restaurant dining – are aimed at armoring hospitals against a torrent of COVID-19 patients.

The orders are put into place when a region’s intensive care unit bed availability falls below 15%, as has now happened in four of the state’s five defined regions: Southern California, San Joaquin Valley, the Bay Area and Greater Sacramento.

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