Los Angeles on Saturday became the first county in the nation to record 1 million coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic.
Public health officials also confirmed at least one case of the new U.K. variant of Covid-19 in a man who spent time in L.A. and is now quarantining in Oregon. Officials believe the variant is already spreading in the community and are continuing to test samples.
“The presence of the U.K. variant in Los Angeles County is troubling, as our healthcare system is already severely strained with more than 7,500 people currently hospitalized," said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, L.A. county's public health director, in a statement. "Our community is bearing the brunt of the winter surge, experiencing huge numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, five-times what we experienced over the summer."
On Saturday, Los Angeles reported 1,003,923 confirmed Covid-19 infections and 13,741 deaths. Public health officials warned earlier this week that the actual number of coronavirus cases could be much higher, saying that as many as 1 in 3 residents have been infected since the pandemic began last year.
The state of California is also reporting staggering numbers with more than 2.9 million confirmed cases, according to NBC News counts. Texas, with 2 million cases, and Florida, with 1.5 million, are the next two states with the most infections. New York, which was one of the country’s first and biggest hot spots, has recorded 1.2 million cases to date.
Ferrer said this week that officials would consider tightening restrictions for businesses, schools and even youth leagues if the current winter surge continues to escalate.
"The work ahead requires us to take every action necessary to reduce transmission,” she warned.
Public health officials are especially concerned that a more contagious variant of the coronavirus could become the dominant strain by March, matching a report released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The variant has already been detected in neighboring San Bernardino County and San Diego.
Current evidence does not suggest the variant will make people sicker. But its faster spread will lead to more cases overall, the study authors wrote, "exacerbating the burden on an already strained health care system, and resulting in more deaths."
According to Los Angeles County public health officials, the current Covid-19 surge started in early November shortly after they loosened restrictions on businesses and in-person gatherings. Since then, rates have increased by 1,000 percent and have disproportionately affected Latinos, who comprise roughly half of the total population.
Experts have pointed to high-density and multigenerational living in Los Angeles’ hardest hit neighborhoods as risk factors, plus a large essential workforce that must report to work in person rather than staying home.
The high Covid-19 rates are being compounded by a slow rollout of vaccinations in a county of 10 million residents. As of Thursday, roughly 279,000 doses have been administered to health care workers and residents and staff at skilled nursing facilities, according to public health officials. But the county must vaccinate an additional 450,000 health care workers before other groups, including people over the age of 65, can receive their vaccinations.
"We are very hopeful that our allocation of doses increases enough for us to begin vaccinating seniors before the end of the month,” Ferrer said in a statement. “As vaccine supply improves, more residents will become eligible for vaccinations. It will take a number of months to reach the level of vaccination needed in the population to curb ongoing transmission of the virus."