Los Angeles County has edged closer to a dreaded milestone of 1 million total confirmed COVID-19 cases, with that mark expected to be reached as early as Saturday, while the death toll continued to mount with more than 200 additional fatalities.

But despite the rising case and death numbers Friday, the situation at hospitals continued a positive downward trend. State officials on Friday reported a total of 7,597 people hospitalized in the county due to COVID-19, down from 7,715 on Thursday and below the 8,000-plus patients reported most of last week.

The number of patients in intensive-care unit beds held mostly steady at 1,675, down from 1,677 on Thursday. The county has a total of about 2,500 licensed ICU beds.

The county Department of Health Services on Friday reported a total of 695 available non-ICU hospital beds, and just 41 available adult ICU beds. Last week, on average, 80% of ICU patients in the county were being treated for COVID-19, along with 54% of non-ICU patients.

But health officials have warned that hospital numbers could significantly rise again due to people who were infected over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. The county has continued to see elevated daily new case numbers, which always translate to more people being hospitalized.

On Friday, the county reported 15,051 new cases, lifting the overall total since the pandemic began to 989,928. Dr. Paul Simon, chief science officer for the county Department of Public Health, noted the cumulative total, saying, “It is very likely we will reach the sad milestone tomorrow of 1 million cases.”

Although the 1 million figure would represent about one-tenth of the overall populations, modeling released by the county this week estimated that as many as one-third of residents have actually been infected at some point, most likely without ever knowing it.

The county on Friday also announced another 258 COVID-19 deaths, raising the overall death toll to 13,489.

Simon noted growing concerns about the new strain of the coronavirus, first detected in the United Kingdom and since found in multiple places around the country, including San Diego County. Although the strain hasn’t been found yet in Los Angeles County, officials have said it is likely already here and hasn’t been detected in the limited amount of testing being done for it.

The new strain does not make people sicker, but it is transmitted much more easily, meaning it can rapidly spread through the population.

Simon also said the new strain “has enough mutations that it could potentially … impact the ability of our tests to detect it.”

Meanwhile, the county is working to ramp up vaccination efforts, with plans to open five large-scale vaccine sites on Tuesday. Those will be in addition to the large site opened by the city at Dodger Stadium on Friday, and 75 smaller sites the county is already operating.

The major question now is the availability of vaccines.

Simon said that as of Thursday, the county has administered more than 279,000 total doses of vaccine to health care workers and staff and residents of skilled nursing and long-term care facilities. He said the county has administered 44% of the vaccines it has received for use as first doses in the two-dose regimen, along with 30% of those earmarked for use as second doses.

“The remaining doses have either been distributed to our partner vaccination providers or have been allocated for use over the next several weeks,” Simon said.

Simon said he sympathized with people frustrated at the slow pace of getting the vaccines administered — particularly among people aged 65 and older, who are already receiving vaccines in other jurisdictions that are deeper into the distribution process. Los Angeles County does not anticipate vaccinating those people until at least February, since it is expected to take until then to finish vaccinating health care workers.

“We too want to expand vaccinations as quickly as possible to those 65 and older,” Simon said. “The major barrier at this time is the lack of adequate supply of vaccine. We are very hopeful that additional vaccine will arrive soon so we can begin vaccinating seniors in the next several weeks. We recognize seniors and others are understandably anxious and in many cases frustrated about the delay in receiving vaccine. Please know that we are committed to expanding access to the vaccine as quickly as possible.”

He urged residents to remain patient as vaccines are rolled out, and in the meantime, to continue wearing masks, practicing physical distancing and frequently washing hands.

“Sadly, our COVID-19 case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths in the county remain very high,” he said. “It will take a number of months to reach the level of vaccination needed in the population to curb ongoing transmission of the virus. Until then it is imperative that everyone continue following the simple measures needed to prevent spread of the virus.”

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