The surge of COVID-19 infections continued to drive up hospitalizations Monday, with state figures Monday showing the number of virus-positive patients in Los Angeles County medical centers nearing 2,000, the highest level since last winter.

According to the state, there were 1,994 COVID-positive patients in county hospitals as of Monday, a jump of more than 200 from the previous day and the highest number since last February. There were 278 of those patients in intensive care, up from 263 on Sunday.

The county Department of Public Health reported that the number of pediatric COVID patients — while still relatively small — increased by nearly 190% from Dec. 4-25, with children under 4 seeing the biggest pediatric increase.

Although current figures were not immediately available, county officials told City News Service last week that on Dec. 2, there were eight pediatric patients hospitalized with COVID in the county, but that number jumped to 21 on Dec. 23.

“As students return to the classroom, we all need to follow the public health safety measures in place to ensure our schools can open safely after the winter break,” Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement. “Because higher community transmission creates additional challenges at our schools, everyone needs to do their part to slow the spread of the virus.

“Most importantly, given that vaccinations and boosters provide the most protection against COVID-19, reducing transmission and disruptions in learning at schools, families need to act urgently to get their school-aged children vaccinated,” she said.

The county issued revised guidelines late last week for schools, requiring teachers and staff to wear upgraded surgical-grade masks, while also requiring mask-wearing outdoors for students when physical distancing isn’t possible. Dozens of school districts resumed in-person classes Monday, while the Los Angeles Unified School District will return next week.

The county will also be helping to distribute at-home test kits being made available by the state to all students in California.

With the highly transmissible Omicron variant of COVID-19 fueling spread of the virus, the county’s case numbers have been skyrocketing over the past week. The county reported nearly 45,000 new cases over the weekend, following a daily record high of 27,091 new infections on Friday.

On Monday — when case and fatality numbers are traditionally low due to reporting delays from the weekend — the county announced eight more COVID-related deaths and 16,269 new cases.

The numbers increased the county’s COVID death toll to 24,647, and the cumulative pandemic case number to 1,757,522.

The rolling seven-day average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was 22.5% as of Monday. That rate was below 1% in November.

With hospitalizations rising, county health officials urged residents to avoid visiting hospital emergency rooms unless they urgently need emergency care.

“Residents should not be visiting the emergency department solely to get a COVID test or for minor complaints that could be resolved through their primary care physician,” according to the county.

Health officials continued to urge residents to curtail higher-risk activities, including indoor activities where individuals are unmasked for long periods of time, as well as crowded outdoor events.

Evidence suggests that only those who have recently completed their vaccination series or are boosted have significant protection from becoming infected with the highly contagious Omicron variant, according to Public Health officials.

“The days ahead will be extraordinarily challenging for all us as we face extraordinarily high case numbers reflecting widespread transmission of the virus. In order to make sure that people are able to work and attend school, we all need to act responsibly,” Ferrer said late last week.

She also noted that overall, COVID death rates have remained relatively flat in the county, despite the dramatic surge in infections, but she said that could change.

“Deaths fortunately remain low and they haven’t changed, but this is because we’re only about a week out from when our hospitalizations started rising,” she said.

Officials have said about 90% of the COVID deaths during the pandemic occurred in people who had underlying health conditions. The most common conditions are hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.

The Southern California News Group reported Monday that COVID cases have begun impacting high school athletic activities, with basketball teams from schools including Chaminade, Long Beach Poly, Bishop Montgomery and Rolling Hills Prop pulling out of games due to virus issues. Sierra Canyon and Notre Dame announced that they will limit access to basketball games, the newspaper group reported.

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