By CBSLA Staff

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — The Los Angeles Department of Public Health Wednesday reported 22,422 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases and 138 additional deaths, bringing countywide totals to 566,005 cases and 8,568 deaths and breaking prior records.

Free COVID-19 testing was being offered Dec. 15 at a City of Los Angeles Mobile Pop-Up testing center at Central Avenue and 59th Street. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

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Health officials said the high case count included about 7,000 backlog cases from one of the county’s largest test-processing labs.

Dr. Barbara Ferrer, county public health director, said the average daily deaths from COVID-19 have spiked 297% since Nov. 9 — reaching an average of 44 per day last week — and would likely continue to grow due to this week’s record numbers. She said, on average, two people die from COVID-19 in L.A. County every hour.

The surge in cases has led to a critical situation at area hospitals with 4,656 COVID-19 patients hospitalized — 21% of whom were being treated in intensive care units.

“Hospital capacity is decreasing to alarming levels and our healthcare workers are pushed to the limits,” Ferrer said Wednesday.

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According to the health department, daily COVID-19 hospitalizations have spiked from about 800 at the beginning of November to nearly 5,000 just over a month later — stretching thin already overworked healthcare workers.

“I go home saying, ‘I could have done this, I could have done that, but I just didn’t have enough time,'” Nerissa Black, a nurse at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital in Santa Clarita, said.

Black works with COVID-19 patients, and said she and her coworkers were feeling the pinch of the alarming rise in hospitalizations as the COVID-19 pandemic surges out of control. She said because of the spike, one nurse might be responsible for up to four patients.

“If I’m in a room with a patient taking care of them, giving them their medication and I hear an alarm on the next room because the patient is about to fall or something else, I won’t be able to get there in time,” she said. “Because I’m already in an isolation room, I have to remove all of my gear, put on a new set before going into the next patient’s room.”

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The story was much the same at Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks.

“We have seen an increase in ICU hospitalizations, so we see patients that are more severely ill from COVID now,” Dr. Gabriella Sherman, chief medical officer, said. “Similar to a lot of hospitals across the county, we have felt the nursing shortage that is impacting the care that we’re able to deliver, but we’ve been very fortunate to be able to bring additional staff to help.”

And, according to health officials, shortages could get worse by the end of the year.

“Our hospitals are under siege, and our model shows no end in sight,” Dr. Christina Ghaly, county health services director, said. “The worst is still before us.”

Ghaly said hospitals could be admitting anywhere from 750 to 1,350 new COVID-19 patients per day by the end of the year based on current trends. This would be up from the average 500 admitted daily last week.

And some emergency rooms are so overcrowded that ambulances have been forced to wait hours to drop off patients.

“The surge, it’s been two hours, four hours and then we’ve had instances where it’s been up to six and seven hours,” Cathy Chidester, director of the county’s Emergency Medical Services Agency, said. “Sometimes the patient’s not even brought into the hospital, they’re left outside with the ambulance, EMTs or paramedics because there is absolutely no space within that emergency department — and that’s including hallways.”

She said hospitals have also been forced to divert incoming ambulances to other emergency rooms — sometimes at hospitals up to 30 minutes away.

According to the state, the Southern California region’s available ICU capacity dropped to 0.5% on Wednesday.

County officials said the local transmission rate had increased to 1.2 with an estimated one in every 80 residents infected with the virus.

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(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. City News Service contributed to this report.)