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L.A. COVID cases near 1 million; officials expect new surge

L.A. County Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jeffery Gunzenhauser joined Yahoo FInance Live to break down the recent jump in California cases of COVID-19 and why he expects a new surge in the virus.

Video Transcript

ADAM SHAPIRO: We're going to be joined now in a discussion regarding where we stand with the COVID-19 pandemic here in the United States by reporter and anchor from Yahoo Finance, Akiko Fujita, as well as Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, who is the LA County chief medical officer. Dr. Gunzenhauser, thank you for joining us.

Got to start with something that happened that we learned just before we started at 3:00 PM, which is that there's an estimate that one in three, one out of every three people in Los Angeles County may have been infected with the coronavirus. Is that being reported accurately? Have you heard of this?

JEFFEREY GUNZENHAUSER: Thank you for that question. Yeah, I hadn't heard that. You're a little ahead of me in terms of information. But it certainly-- it could be possible. That estimate might be a little high. So I'd be glad to follow up and look at the math and the figures behind that.

But likely a very substantial proportion of folks here in Los Angeles County have been infected. We've tested quite a few people. And we've had nearly 5 million positive tests. So we already know that 5% have been diagnosed. And for every case that's diagnosed, there's multiple other people infected. So it's very likely we have a proportion of our population infected that's something close to what you estimated.

AKIKO FUJITA: Doctor, as somebody who has spent the last few months over in LA, I have to tell you, you look at these numbers, it's quite staggering. And you look at where things stand in terms of the restrictions. Malls are still open. LA traffic not as bad as it usually is. But people are still traveling. When you look at the scope of the infections and the issue right now, how much of the conversation right now is about additional restrictions that may be necessary in order to control the spread?

JEFFEREY GUNZENHAUSER: It's a really good question, because we want to do all that we can, given the dire situation here in Los Angeles County. I can tell you that our director, Dr. Barbara Ferrer and our health officer, Dr. Muntu Davis, are talking with our board of supervisors about what additional restrictions we can put in place. Many things are closed down, as you know.

We stopped outside dining. The schools are closed. There's some minimal things going on. There is still some retail going on, as you know, indoor malls, as you mentioned, and a few other things.

We go out and visit those sites to make sure that they are following the rules. The most important thing is people do follow the rules of wearing face coverings and socially distancing. These infections can be prevented. So when we do go out, we do find a very high level of compliance. Anybody who is totally out of compliance we will close.

But we are looking at those because we do realize they do pose some risks. To be honest, our belief is that most of the transmission is occurring because of choices that individuals are making. We just came out of the holiday period. You probably can relate to this. A lot of people had discussions like "well, maybe I can just visit a family member for a brief period of time" or "maybe I can travel somewhere."

All of those kinds of decisions are what have contributed to this outbreak. So whatever we can do to create collective conversations to hold the group responsible so that the things that are really contributing to this outbreak can be controlled, we can then begin to turn the curve on where we are here in LA County.

SEANA SMITH: Doctor, when you take a look-- it's Seana. When you take a look at this dire situation in your county right now, hospitals clearly are under a tremendous amount of stress. How has the threshold to admit someone in your area changed? And how do you go about making those types of very, very tough decisions?

JEFFEREY GUNZENHAUSER: It's a very good question. And I do want to just make sure everybody realizes the direness of the situation. Here in LA County, we're reporting over 280 additional deaths today and over 280 yesterday. That means every five minutes, somebody is dying in LA County from COVID. During this interview, there will be two or three people in a hospital not very far from where I am who will die from COVID. It's really unbelievable.

So we have, during the last 10 days, our 85 or so hospitals have had about 8,000 people in the hospital every day with COVID. And so we're working with them to figure out how can we expand care? How can we make sure people who really need care are getting it? So we're looking at the front end to make sure that individuals who most need the care are getting in.

And also where else can those people be moved? So, for example, we're working very closely with our skilled nursing facilities, doing all we can to make space available there. If an individual can use a lower level of care and could be moved there, that would free up a space in a hospital for somebody who has COVID or another severe condition. We're looking at every possibility we can to make as many spaces available in our hospitals as possible.

AKIKO FUJITA: Even as you've juggled--

ADAM SHAPIRO: Doctor, when the--

AKIKO FUJITA: Even as you juggle the capacity issues in the hospitals, of course, you're looking ahead to vaccinations. California recently expanding those who can get vaccinated to those who are 65 and older. A report out of your county suggests that the county is not prepared to do that just yet. Can you offer a little more clarity on who's actually getting vaccinated? And ultimately, how long will it take if you can-- until you can get to that 75% to 80% threshold in vaccinations that will allow for some life to return to normal?

JEFFEREY GUNZENHAUSER: It's a really good question. I appreciate the interest in vaccinations. And everybody's trying to figure out where we are, where we need to go.

As of last week, we have been provided just under 500,000 doses of vaccine. With over 10 million people in LA County-- we're the most populous county in the nation-- we need 20 million doses. That means as of last week, we had only received a little under 2 and 1/2% of what we need.

We estimate we have well over 500,000 health-care workers here in LA County, perhaps as high as 800,000. And we also have about 30,000 individuals in our skilled nursing facilities. We're in phase 1A. Those are the individuals in our first tier. We're trying to make sure that all of those individuals are vaccinated by the end of January.

So our goal is to get out an additional half million doses to all the health-care workers in LA County by the end of January. In our skilled nursing facilities, and we have about 340 of them, as of this week, at 322 of them, over 2/3 of the staff and over 2/3 of the residents have been vaccinated. And that's because some residents are infected, they can't be vaccinated.

Some of the workers work at multiple locations. Some of them have turned it down. So we're very happy with that. We're still trying to close that gap, because that's the most vulnerable population.

Next week, we're opening up five additional what we call mega pods here in Los Angeles County. And we're hoping that at those mega pods, we'll be able to build the capacity to do 20,000 additional vaccinations every day. We think that that, coupled with the extraordinary efforts by our partners in LA City and others here in the county, we'll reach the goal in 17 days of vaccinating an additional half million health-care workers.

When that is finished, we'll then move on into 1B. As the governor announced yesterday, we want to vaccinate people 65 or older. So we will, at that point, begin to vaccinate elderly people, as well as workers in other sectors other than health care.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, LA county chief medical officer, thank you so much for joining us here on Yahoo Finance Live. We wish you and your staff and all of the medical staff in LA County the best.