The omicron fueled surge in COVID-19 cases has entered a grim phase with hospitalizations and deaths starting to increase following weeks of skyrocketing infections.

County health officials said last week that the threat of short term health risks, particularly to the unvaccinated or immunocompromised, combined with the threat of long-term health impacts should motivate residents to avoid unnecessary gatherings for several weeks.

Barbara Ferrer, Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Health (Public Health), said her office has started to see a troubling increase in deaths from COVID-19 in recent days.

Case counts have increased by over 2,000 percent in the last month increasing from less than 1,000 new daily cases at the start of December to more than 35,000 new daily cases last week. Hospitalizations and deaths typically follow the same trend as cases but are offset by a few weeks. Ferrer said hospitalizations are up by more than 600 percent over the same time (from less than 600 in December to over 4,100 now) and there has been a recent uptick in deaths. She said daily deaths more than doubled over the last week with 45 new deaths reported on Thursday.

“The sad thing is once we see these increases, they’re likely to continue for a few weeks after cases plateau or are beginning to decline,” she said. “And while it’s reassuring that much of the scientific evidence to date suggests that omicron causes milder illness for many people, particularly those vaccinated and boosted, we still have no idea what percent of those recently infected with omicron will experience long COVID or the likelihood of children infected with omicron developing MIS-C after their initial infection. Given this uncertainty it remains prudent to continue to take all the protections possible to minimize your exposure to this highly infectious variant.”

MIS-C is a rare inflammatory complication of COVID-19 seen in children post-infection.

County data reports about 15,000 hospitalized patients as of last week, close to last year’s peak of 16,500 total patients. However, Ferrer said the numbers were not as clear cut as last year.

“Many of the COVID positive patients hospitalized are seeking hospital care for non-COVID related health issue, such as care for chronic conditions including heart or kidney disease,” she said. “Because all patients are tested for COVID on admission, the increase in hospitalizations reflects the higher rates of community spread.”

According to Ferrer about 40 percent of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 were due to the disease itself, not another condition. She said those numbers were still high enough to warrant concern over the strength of the system.

“The other thing I want to note is that COVID positive patients regardless of the reason for the hospitalization, all require resource intensive precautions, including isolation rooms, cohorted staff and personal protective equipment,” she said. “And this does continue to represent a substantial strain on the healthcare system, particularly in light of the staffing shortages that are happening at all of our hospitals.”

Ferrer said local residents shouldn’t get their hopes up about an end to the current situation despite reports from other hard-hit locations that the omicron surge peaks and falls quickly. She said while Los Angeles might follow that path, it’s a moot point as local cases are still increasing meaning the peak has not arrived.

“The timing of the peak, I wish I could answer that for you and for me. I wish I had that crystal ball. I don’t know. You know, because look in New York, we can look at Washington D.C., we can look at what’s going on in the UK and London in particular and get a sense that similar to South Africa, we have these huge increases, and then there seems to be a plateauing and then there is a decline. I can say one thing for sure is we are still increasing. So we’re not plateauing. The numbers today are 45,000, that’s not a plateau. That’s an increase.”

She said the local increase remains steep and there’s no way to predict when cases will stabilize, let alone fall.