If you ordered one of LA County’s free at-home COVID-19 test kits in the last week or so, you may be waiting a long time to receive it via mail. That’s because the county quietly paused the program on Wednesday, leaving residents unsure whether tests they ordered would ever arrive.

“That program is paused,” LA County Director of Public Health Barbara Ferrer said during a Thursday COVID-19 briefing in response to a reporter’s question, “because they were running into some serious challenges with the vendor around … getting those deliveries on time to people’s homes.”

According to Ferrer, the Department of Health Services — a separate county department from DPH — was working to get take-home test kits distributed to county testing sites.

“My understanding is the Department of Health Services that runs that program is rapidly switching to making those in-home test kits available at the department’s and the county’s testing sites,” Ferrer said, mentioning that they could be available as early as Friday — but she wasn’t sure.

“My understanding is, that should be available tomorrow, but go to the testing website to get both the locations where that’s happening, and also information to just verify that those kits will be there by tomorrow,” Ferrer said. “I’m pretty sure they are.”

As of Thursday afternoon, the county’s testing website did not indicate if or when in-home test kits would be distributed at any of its sites.

As for residents who requested tests before the pause, Ferrer said she did not know whether those tests would ever be mailed.

DPH had been advertising the program on its social media pages and press releases as recently as Monday and did not make a formal announcement of the program’s “temporary pause” outside of Ferrer’s statements on Thursday.

Ferrer’s advice to symptomatic people who are unable to secure test appointments and who have not, and perhaps will not, receive at-home test kits: behave as if you have COVID.

“Go ahead, try to get a test. But if you can’t get that test, please don’t decide [that] because you didn’t get tested, you don’t have COVID and you don’t have to stay home,” Ferrer said. “If you’ve got symptoms, we do ask, while we’re trying to increase testing capacity and make it much easier for everyone who needs a test to get a test, you please stay home while you’re symptomatic. And hopefully, now over the next few days, you’re going to see better access to testing in the county.”

When it comes to new COVID-19 statistics, hospitalizations are up, deaths are up and new cases are way, way up. But there are indications this winter’s surge may not be as devastating as last year’s, according to Ferrer.

During the Thursday briefing, Ferrer detailed the latest statistics in the county’s prolonged fight against the coronavirus pandemic, including the fact that 37,000 county residents tested positive for the virus on Wednesday.

Multiple news agencies have reported this week that a large proportion of the total number of COVID-19 cases reported in area hospitals were detected once patients were admitted to the hospital, meaning they were not admitted due to COVID symptoms.

“In early November, pre Omicron, you can see about 75 percent of hospitalized patients who were testing positive for COVID were hospitalized for medical problems that were related to their COVID diagnosis, leaving about a quarter of the hospitalized patients with a positive COVID test and having their COVID diagnosis really incidental to their hospitalization,” Ferrer said during the Thursday briefing. “Now, however, in December — late December — we’re estimating that the percent of people hospitalized for COVID illnesses declined to about 45 percent, meaning that more than half of the COVID-positive hospitalized patients are in the hospital for non-COVID-related illness, and would likely have been hospitalized regardless of their COVID status.”

The proportion of ICU beds occupied by COVID-19 patients remained less than 10 percent, compared to more than 50 percent used during last winter’s surge before vaccines were widely available.

That was one piece of good news in an overall dire press briefing in which Ferrer predicted an ongoing surge that would trend upward for “at least the next two weeks.” Ferrer also acknowledged that hospitalizations and deaths were lagging indicators, meaning they tended to go up days or weeks after case rates began to rise.

The most important factor in limiting the spread of the virus and keeping hospital beds open is vaccinating and getting booster shots, Ferrer said.

“As you can see, daily cases have risen steeply from about 27,000 cases a day on New Year’s Eve to now, today, 37,215,” Ferrer said. “Meanwhile, reported daily deaths, which dipped over the weekend due to the lag of weekend reporting, have now increased from about 12 on Dec. 31 to 30 being reported today.”

In the face of rising case rates, Ferrer said the county had taken some steps to stem further spread, including requiring employers to provide surgical or medical masks to any employees who work in proximity to other people (either members of the public or fellow employees) and limiting indoor “mega events” to a maximum of 500 people.

When asked by a reporter about the upcoming Super Bowl, scheduled to take place at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood on Sunday, Feb. 13 — with a slew of events scheduled here in Santa Monica — Ferrer said she was confident that organizers were taking the necessary precautions to allow the game to proceed.

“We’ve had an amazingly successful partnership with SoFi Stadium. I think they’re one of the leaders around the country in providing safety solutions during a pandemic,” Ferrer said. “It will be challenging if the surge continues into February, but I do think we’re working closely with both the NFL and SoFi Stadium to have a wonderful Super Bowl here, with the appropriate safety precautions that will keep fans safe and our community safe.”

LA County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, who was also on the call, stressed the importance of following health orders.

“My plea is to all of those locals and those who will travel to Inglewood to SoFi Stadium for the Super Bowl that you follow our health orders, and that you mask,” Mitchell said. “I would encourage people to get vaccinated and boosted before they come. We shouldn’t assume that individual decisions don’t have the greatest impact in the spread of this virus.”

Up-to-date information on COVID-19 testing is available at covid19.lacounty.gov/testing.

emily@smdp.com