When a woman in her 30s showed up in his Los Angeles County hospital emergency room this week with a fever, racing heart rate and a sore throat, Dr. Darien Sutton said his first thought was that she had contracted COVID-19. But after taking the necessary precautions and conducting tests, it turned out the patient had a routine urinary tract infection.
"It was so shocking because, at the end of the day, I was like, 'I forgot there are other things that cause fevers, chills and sore throat.' You had to stop and remember other infections are now coming back," Sutton told ABC News.
The interaction was another signal that COVID-19 infections are continuing to dramatically plummet in Los Angeles County. The county of more than 10 million people reported zero COVID-related deaths on Sunday and Monday, and the number of new infections fell to 255, the lowest since the pandemic began more than a year ago.
The hopeful streak of zero-death days was slightly dimmed by Tuesday's numbers from the county public health department showing 18 deaths and 273 new cases.
But the county's daily test-positivity rate as of Monday was a minuscule 0.7%, according to county officials.
The latest data shows there are only 386 people with COVID-19 currently hospitalized in the county.
In January, the county was the epicenter of the pandemic, recording more than 300 deaths and 12,000 to 17,000 new cases per day. Overwhelmed hospitals were admitting roughly 7,000 new COVID-19 patients daily, and tents had to be set up outside Sutton's emergency room to triage the influx of infected patients.
LA County was far and away affected more than any other in the nation during the pandemic. The county recorded more than twice as many confirmed cases (1.2 million) as the second-highest in the U.S. (Maricopa County, Arizona; 538,633), and more than twice as many deaths (23,943) as the second-highest in the country (Kings County, New York; 10,180), according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
"It really, really feels like another world," Sutton, an ABC News medical unit contributor, said of the dramatic decrease in the number of coronavirus cases.
Things are going so well that on Tuesday, health officials announced that LA County is now eligible to advance to the least-restrictive yellow COVID-19 tier in California's reopening framework, according to the latest data from the state.
LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said new health orders with more relaxed restrictions are expected to be published on Wednesday and will take effect Thursday.
Under yellow tier status, most businesses will be allowed to increase capacity limits. Fitness centers, card rooms, wineries and breweries, for instance, would be permitted to boost indoor attendance limits from 25% to 50%; bars will be able to open indoors at 25% capacity; outdoor venues like Dodger Stadium will be permitted to increase capacity from 33% to 67%; and amusement parks will be authorized to increase the volume of visitors from 25% to 35%.
Sutton said a combination of factors has produced the region's sharp recovery from the COVID-19 crisis it was in earlier this year: the easy availability of testing, the willingness of county residents to practice social distancing and mask wearing and the county's aggressive push to get people vaccinated.
"I just got an alert yesterday on my phone -- the same alert that you get when there's a missing child, the one that goes on everyone's phone -- and it was just letting people know that you can get a vaccine anywhere in all these locations," Sutton said.
As of April 30, more than 8 million COVID-19 vaccine doses had been administered to people across LA County, including more that 3 million who are fully vaccinated, according to county health officials.
"With ample supply, our efforts are now focused on making it as easy as possible for everyone 16 and older to get their vaccine," county health officials said in a statement.
Sutton said he's also been encouraging young adults to get vaccinated, explaining that while vaccine participation is up across the county, it has fallen for young adults.
"Although younger people are less likely to become severely ill from COVID-19, young people are the main cause of transmission," Sutton said. "It's not the elderly patient that's sitting in the nursing home that's passing around COVID-19. It is the young people that are driving around California and probably not listening to restrictions as much as someone who might feel more vulnerable."
"I'm trying to convince young patients to get vaccinated, but it's a lot more difficult," he added. "I fear that it may be the cause of a next surge with a more viral variant."
Meanwhile, Sutton said he is beginning to see more patients with common ailments, like appendicitis, and children with routine viruses coming into his ER as fears of contracting the virus ease.
"Parents are freaking out and bringing their kids in because they have fever now. But all of them are COVID negative," Sutton said. "It's definitely a good feeling."