COVID-19 Becomes Leading Cause of Death in L.A. County, Surpassing Influenza

Members of the Glendale police and fire departments pose with healthcare workers as they pay tribute to the healthcare workers   - Getty - H 2020
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Nearly 800 county residents have died stemming from the pandemic, averaging 44 deaths per day since April 12.

As coronavirus-induced lockdowns stretch into a second month, protests continue to break out across the country as critics of the tight restrictions demand a reopening of businesses and the economy. The most common charge is that the COVID-19 illness is comparable to the flu and not as deadly.

At Thursday’s Los Angeles County coronavirus press briefing, Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer didn't directly address the protesters, but she did lay out statistics that COVID-19 death rates have now surpassed other common illnesses, including influenza, to become the leading cause of death in the county.

Ferrer cited April 12 as the date when the county first recorded its highest number of single-day fatalities with 31. It has spiked many times since then, resulting in an average number of daily deaths of 44, exceeding other diseases and illnesses tracked by the public health department, she said. By comparison, there are five flu deaths per day during flu season, eight per day from COPD and emphysema, and 31 from coronary heart disease. She specifically singled out influenza, saying that COVID-19 has claimed more lives in two months than the number of people who die from the flu during an eight-month period.

From April 12-23, 535 people died from the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, with another 68 recorded over the past 24 hours. To date, there have been 797 fatalities in L.A. County stemming from the pandemic, and Ferrer’s update followed California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s briefing during which he said the past 24 hours have delivered the state’s deadliest day with 115 lives lost for a total of 1,469 deaths.

"More people are dying each day from COVID-19," Ferrer said. "Sixty-seven percent of all of our COVID-19 deaths happened in a two-week period. These numbers are a stark reminder for all of us of slowing the spread of COVID-19 … in slowing the spread, we have the opportunity to save a life."

Ferrer underscored how devastating the virus is for those with underlying health conditions, calling out that 89 percent of those fatalities represent people who faced serious health conditions. Of the 68 who died since Wednesday, 51 of those were over the age of 65 and 40 faced underlying health conditions. 

"This is underscoring the need for people who have underlying health conditions to make sure that they’re staying home, that they’re avoiding close contact with as many other people as possible and that at the first sign of illness they are contacting their health care provider," added Ferrer.

The county continues to increase its testing capacity while reporting a backlog of test results as new testing facilities work to get online with the public health department's electronic reporting system. Because of that, Ferrer reported 1,081 newly diagnosed positive cases for a total of 17,508. There are now 100 positive cases with people experiencing homelessness, and more expected as officials process results of an outbreak at the Skid Row homeless shelter Union Rescue Mission.

Another focal point of L.A. County's work remains nursing homes and skilled nursing homes that have thus far in the pandemic accounted for sometimes 40 percent of fatalities. There are currently 26 skilled nursing homes under investigation where there are 20 or more positive cases, Ferrer said. Across all institutional settings, there are 3,343 positive cases (1,196 residents, 1,374 staff) and 310 deaths. 

The forecast for Southern California came up multiple times during Thursday's press briefing as warmer weather blankets the Southland with temperatures expected to reach peaks not recorded since last fall or even last summer. Some areas across Los Angeles are expected to see 90-plus-degree temperatures, weather that would normally translate to crowded beaches, pools and parks. But since strict safter-at-home ordinances remain in effect through May 15, Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis says residents need to still be safe.

"This will test our resolve to remain committed," she said of the weather. "Now is not the time to let our guard down."