As the total number of U.S. coronavirus cases surpassed 24 million on Monday, Los Angeles County, one of the hardest-hit areas, may face even more dire weeks ahead. Deaths in the county have continued to climb as the national death toll nears 400,000.
Hospitals have run out of room in intensive care units, though new cases and hospitalizations appear to be leveling off in recent days. The county records a coronavirus-related death roughly every seven minutes, and last week was its highest recorded ever for Covid-19 fatalities.
On Saturday alone, 253 people died of Covid-19, and with variants of the virus that could be more contagious now circulating in California, those numbers may rise.
It took nearly 10 months for the county, America’s most populous, to hit 400,000 cases, but little more than a month to add another 400,000, from Nov. 30 to Jan. 2, according to a New York Times database. On Saturday, the county became the nation’s first to surpass one million recorded coronavirus infections, a number only four states other than California have exceeded: Illinois, New York, Florida and Texas. (California on Sunday became the first state to have recorded more than three million cases.)
And the true scale of infections may be much higher than reported: One in three Los Angeles residents is believed to have been infected with the virus since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the Los Angeles Department of Health. To help quell the spread, the county’s public schools have asked health authorities for permission to begin providing Covid-19 vaccinations.
The virus is surging across California, where daily deaths are averaging 528, an increase of over 15 percent from a week ago. Much of the state, including the southern region, remains under a stay-at-home order.
The crisis has led to a backlog of bodies so severe that the air quality regulator for much of Southern California issued an emergency order on Friday temporarily suspending limits on cremations in Los Angeles County, at the request of the county’s coroner and health department.
The state is among many dealing with the arrival of a more contagious viral variant, first discovered in Britain; the first confirmed case in Los Angeles was reported on Saturday. It is believed to be potentially 50 percent more transmissible than the initial version of the virus.
Officials said they thought the variant, which has caused infections to soar in London and southeast England, has been spreading through Los Angeles for some time. While more contagious, the variant does not appear to cause more severe illness.
On Sunday night, the California Department of Public Health reported another variant that had grown more common across the state since December. Known as L452R, it was first detected in Denmark in March and appeared in California in May. In December, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, sequenced genomes of coronavirus gathered around the state and found that the variant was present in just 3.8 percent of their samples. By January, it had jumped to 25.2 percent.
Charles Chiu, who led the sequencing, cautioned that he and his colleagues worked with a small sample size, so they have not yet proven that this variant is more contagious. “But there are worrisome signs that this variant may be highly transmissible,” he said.
Dr. Chiu and his colleagues are now looking more carefully for this variant across the state and are trying to understand how its mutations have altered it. They want to see if the variant can escape from monoclonal antibodies and perhaps even make vaccines less effective. “These are critical studies that need to be done,” Dr. Chiu said.
After weeks under a stay-at-home order, the county’s positivity rate is starting to taper. Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, said the state and Los Angeles seemed to be “in the process of sort of gradually turning a corner here.”
He cautioned against panicking about the more transmissible variant, noting the same cautious behavior will help keep it at bay: stay home, wear a mask, physically distance.