The L.A. County Emergency Medical Services Agency issued a directive Monday detailing the decision.
"Given the acute need to conserve oxygen, effective immediately, EMS should only administer supplemental oxygen to patients with oxygen saturation below 90%," the directive said, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The directive was made on the same day the county said 7,697 patients were hospitalized with the virus. Of those, at least 21% are in intensive care units. When the recent surge began, in early-November, there were about 791 people hospitalized with COVID-19.
California officials recently said they were having trouble getting the necessary amount of oxygen to critically ill coronavirus patients, with supply issues causing at least five Los Angeles County hospitals to declare an "internal disaster," which means they could turn away ambulances.
Coronavirus patients generally need 60 to 80 liters of oxygen a minute, while other patients may receive six liters per minute. Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, L.A. County’s chief medical officer said officials are exploring "every possible way to reduce the burden on the hospitals."
"There’s a lot of actions that have been taken to improve the coordination of identifying patients really needing hospitalization and linking them up to where there’s an available bed, rather than stacking up ambulances outside an emergency department," he told the L.A. Times.
In addition to the oxygen rationing, the agency issued memos last week telling ambulance staff not to transfer patients to the hospital who have virtually no chance of survival.
In a matter of weeks, COVID-19 cases in the county have nearly doubled — increasing from 400,000 on Nov. 30 to more than 800,000 on Jan. 2, according to the Los Angeles Department of Public Health.
Officials worry the county is likely to experience an increase in cases associated with the winter holidays.
To assist with the situation, California created a state oxygen team, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers crews recently arrived to update their oxygen delivery systems.
"The State of California is continuously working to support our hospitals and protect the lives of Californians impacted by COVID-19. By working to upgrade challenged oxygen delivery systems at these older hospitals we can improve the ability to deliver life sustaining medical care to those who need it," said Mark Ghilarducci, Director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.