The state Department of Public Health said there were more than than 47,000 new confirmed cases reported on New Year’s Day.

The sheer number of fatalities is causing more challenges to already overwhelmed hospitals and other institutions. Many hospital morgues are now filled with bodies, and officials are trying to move them for temporary storage at the county medical examiner-coroner’s office.

 Senior chaplain Nancy Many, left, prays with Rafael Lopez in a COVID-19 unit at Providence Holy Cross Medical Centre, Los Angeles.

Senior chaplain Nancy Many, left, prays with Rafael Lopez in a COVID-19 unit at Providence Holy Cross Medical Centre, Los Angeles. Credit:AP

Mortuary and funeral home operators say they are having to turn away bereaved families because they don’t have the capacity to handle more bodies.

Jennifer Bagues, the general manager of Felipe Bagues Mortuary in Boyle Heights, started turning away families this week. Her family’s small mortuary on 1st Street, which was founded by her great-grandfather, can accommodate no more than 20 bodies.

Bagues estimates that 75 per cent of the calls she’s fielded in the last two weeks have been from families whose relatives have died of COVID-19. Lately, she’s realised some families are returning to bury a second loved one. Bagues scheduled a service this weekend for a husband and wife who both died from COVID-19.

Rob Karlin, the owner and funeral director of Los Angeles Funeral Service in Culver City, attributed his capacity issues both to the rising caseload and to a slowdown in the process of burying the dead. Obtaining death certificates, retrieving bodies from the coroner, embalming them – “everything is taking longer,” he said.

Embalmers, he added, are treating every body as if it had been infected with COVID-19.

“They’re taking extra precautions and using a lot of bleach,” he said. “There’s an uncertainty about how long it’s dangerous on a dead body. I don’t know. There’s so much unknown.”

At St Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, morticians from funeral homes can’t come fast enough to remove bodies from the hospital morgue, said Scott Byington, a nurse at the hospital. Morticians visit the hospital several times a day to pick up as many bodies as they can, but limited space at the funeral homes has created a backlog.

Any open spots are quickly filled with more of the dead, Byington said.

At the beginning of a recent shift, Byington was told there were enough gurneys for nine more people in the hospital morgue. Six hours later, several patients had died and the morgue was at capacity.

“We were calling the mortuary to come and take what you can,” he said. “Our morgue has been full all the time.”

A sign at Manhattan Beach urges people to wear masks as the California death toll soars.

A sign at Manhattan Beach urges people to wear masks as the California death toll soars. Credit:AP

The spike in COVID-19 deaths related to Thanksgiving may last through to mid-January. Hospitalisations related to the expected surge in virus transmission over Christmas and New Year’s are expected to worsen around the middle and later weeks of January.

The number of deaths reported in California each day on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday was more than on any other previous day throughout the course of the entire pandemic – a back-to-back battering that has propelled the state’s total death toll past 25,000.

Ambulances outside the emergency room entrance at Loma Linda University Medical Center in Loma Linda, California.

Ambulances outside the emergency room entrance at Loma Linda University Medical Center in Loma Linda, California.Credit:Bloomberg

California is the third state to reach that morbid mark, joining Texas and New York.

Over the last four days, the deaths of about 1,700 people in California from COVID-19 have been reported, including a record-high of 442 Tuesday and the next-highest total, 424, a day later. The single-day record was broken again on New Year’s Eve, with 573 additional deaths.

Those numbers represent roughly the equivalent of one Californian dying from the disease every three-and-a-half minutes.

In Los Angeles County, officials say one person is dying every 10 minutes.

Starting at midnight Thursday, county officials began posting new messages on Twitter at that interval, describing someone who may have just lost his or her battle with COVID-19: the principal who stayed late to watch every school play; an ER nurse who pulled double shifts for months on end; the activist who laboured to uplift a community; a cherished co-worker or friend; a beloved family member.

Each message was punctuated with the same plea: “Slow the spread. Save a life.”

Los Angeles Times

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