The number of COVID-19-positive patients in Los Angeles County hospitals continued an upward climb Thursday, but it remained well short of the peak seen during last winter’s surge in virus cases.

According to state figures, there were 2,661 COVID-positive patients in county hospitals, up from 2,461 on Wednesday. The number of those patients being treated in intensive care units was 352 on Thursday, up from 330 a day earlier.

The number of COVID-positive patients hasn’t been this high since mid-February of 2021. But the number is still well shy of the peak of more than 8,000 reached last January, at the height of that winter’s surge in virus infections.

While numbers have been rising, officials have noted the generally lower numbers, with the highly infection Omicron variant believed to cause less severe illness, particularly in people who are vaccinated. In fact, many COVID-positive patients in hospitals likely didn’t realize they were infected until they went the hospital for a completely different reason.

Dr. Christina Ghaly, the county director of health services, said roughly two-thirds of the COVID-positive patients at the four county-run hospitals were admitted for other reasons, and only tested positive upon admission.

That marks a stark difference from last winter, when patients were flocking to hospitals due to COVID-related illness.

Surging infection numbers prompted the county this week to amend its public health order, requiring employers to provide upgraded masks to employees who work indoors in close contact with others.

The order, issued Wednesday, will take effect Jan. 17 and requires employers to provide affected workers with “well-fitting medical grade masks, surgical masks, or higher-level respirators, such as N95 or KN95 masks.”

The revised order also amended the definition of outdoor “mega events,” where masking is required, to 5,000 or more attendees; and the definition of indoor “mega” events to 500 or more people. The numbers align with those in the state’s health order. The county’s order also “recommends” that food and drink be consumed only in designated dining areas.

“Given the explosive spread of the virus, activities that put us in close contact with many other people now have an increased risk,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement. “As such, everyone needs to be sensible about how to protect themselves and those they love by layering on protections whenever around non-household members.

“At work, this means upgrading your mask if you work indoors and you are in contact with other workers or members of the public. At entertainment venues, this means limiting the time you spend without wearing your upgraded mask. And for other activities, this may mean postponing your participation until community transmission is much reduced.”

The upgraded mask requirement for county workplaces mirrors an order released late last week by the county for K-12 schools, requiring teachers and staff to wear higher-grade face coverings. USC announced this week it will require all students and staff to wear higher-grade masks when in-person classes resume.

The changes come amid a surge in COVID-19 infections driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the virus. The county on Wednesday reported another 26,754 cases, lifting the cumulative pandemic total to 1,806,828.

Another 27 COVID deaths were also reported, giving the county an overall death toll of 27,698.

The average daily rate of people testing positive for the virus was 22.4% as of Wednesday. That rate was below 1% a month ago.

Demand for COVID tests has been growing rapidly, with long lines becoming a common site at testing centers across the county. The demand has also led to a run on take-home tests, which quickly vanish from store shelves.

Los Angeles County this week was forced to suspend its program offering free at-home tests. That program allowed residents to simply sign up through the county’s website, allowing them to get a test mailed to their home through Fulgent Genetics. The county’s website now says the program is suspended, with Fulgent saying it is on hold “due to high demand and shipping constraints.”

According to Fulgent, no new orders will be accepted until at least Jan. 12. Incoming samples from tests that were previously distributed are still being processed.

According to county figures released last week, of the more than 6.3 million fully vaccinated people in the county, 127,172 have tested positive for the virus, for a rate of 2%, while 3,094 have been hospitalized, for a rate of 0.05%. A total of 602 fully vaccinated people have died, for a rate of 0.01%.

The testing-positivity rate, however, may be artificially low due to the number of people who use take-home tests and don’t report the results.

Overall, 79% of eligible county residents aged 5 and older have received at least one dose of vaccine, while 71% are fully vaccinated. Of the county’s overall population of 10.3 million people, 75% have received at least one dose, and 67% are fully vaccinated.

The lowest vaccination rate is among children aged 5-11 — the most recent age group to become eligible for the shots.

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