LOS ANGELES (AFP) - California officials ordered thousands of extra body bags on Tuesday (Dec 15) as record coronavirus cases left Los Angeles with fewer than 100 intensive care beds available for a county of 10 million people.
The situation has grown severe across southern parts of California, which was praised for its response at the start of the pandemic in spring, but which has seen Covid-19-related hospital admissions soar sixfold since mid-October.
Beyond Los Angeles, health authorities have sounded the alarm in nearby Ventura and Riverside counties, operating with 99 and 100 per cent of ICU capacity used up respectively.
Ambulance waits of up to five hours before patients can be transported to crowded hospitals have been reported.
"We just had to order 5,000 additional body bags... that should be sobering," said Governor Gavin Newsom, warning the state is "in the middle of the most acute peak" of the disease.
"I don't want... to scare folks. But this is a deadly disease, and we need to be mindful of where we are.
"We are not at the finish line yet," he added.
Although vaccinations began in several California cities on Monday, the process is expected to come too late to stem the state's third wave of coronavirus.
Mr John Murray, a spokesman for UCI Health in Orange County, admitted the demand on his hospital was "great" but added: "We're managing it... We have the ability to convert other units into ICUs fairly quickly."
But with remaining ICU capacity across southern California down to just 1.7 per cent, some experts warned the lack of specialised care could trigger a spike in mortality.
"Many folks may be thinking that this is just not anything to be really worried about because hospitals can just add more beds - the reality is every bed needs to be staffed by highly trained and skilled healthcare workers," said Los Angeles County public health director Barbara Ferrer.
"We don't have an endless supply of healthcare workers, and those that are here saving lives every day are exhausted."
Worsening matters, officials warned that daily cases and deaths could rise further as people continue to gather for parties, indoor religious services and youth sport competitions - all of which are technically banned.
Most of California's residents were placed under a new version of lockdown last week, with 33 million residents banned from gatherings between households and "non-essential" activities.
"The numbers are getting to be astronomical. People are going to die that don't need to die," Ventura County public health officer Robert Levin told the Los Angeles Times.
In Los Angeles, prosecutors have filed a lawsuit against a downtown nightclub that continued to host late-night, underground raves in violation of Covid-19 restrictions.
"We're in the middle of the most acute peak as it relates to what we refer to as the third wave, and what we hope is the final wave of this disease," said Mr Newsom, urging Californians not to become complacent.
California has recorded more than 1.6 million coronavirus cases and 21,000 deaths since the pandemic began.
Last week, Covid-19 killed an average of 163 people every day in California, up from 41 a month earlier.
"There is light at the end of the tunnel," said Mr Newsom. "We're still in the tunnel."