Health

California COVID-19 cases hit new high. ‘This is the start of the Thanksgiving bump’


California has again demolished a daily record for newly confirmed coronavirus cases, continuing a relentless onslaught of infections that has already sent more people to the hospital than at any point during the pandemic.

The state reported 34,490 new coronavirus cases Monday, a figure stratospherically higher than any daily case count, according to data compiled by The Times.

So large is the gap between Monday’s report and the previous single-day record — set Friday, when 22,369 cases were tallied — that the difference of the two numbers, 12,121, would have ranked among California’s highest before the latest surge.

The record-shattering report coincides with when officials said they expected to begin seeing the consequences of travel and gatherings for the Thanksgiving holiday. The numbers also may foreshadow a time when daily infection counts equaling the size of a small city could be more the norm than the exception.

“I would say this is the start of the Thanksgiving bump,” Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said.

The latest increases, she said during a briefing Monday, “reflect actions we took in late November, and we can’t take those actions back. What we can do is change our actions today so that, two to three weeks from now, we’re not reporting a similarly disastrous cascade of events.”

Over the last week, California has averaged 22,220 new coronavirus cases per day — a 78% increase from two weeks ago, according to The Times’ county-by-county tally of infections.

The rate at which coronavirus tests are confirming infection has also soared in recent weeks. California’s seven-day positivity rate is now 10.5%, the latest state data show, up from the 14-day average of 8.4%.

Officials are quick to note that cases themselves are not a byproduct of testing, because screenings merely confirm whether someone is already infected. But the ballooning case count, combined with a greater proportion of tests coming back positive, makes clear that coronavirus transmission is widespread throughout the state, experts say.

The extent of infections in California is particularly troubling because about 12% of those who test positive will fall ill enough to require hospitalizations two to three weeks later. If case counts remain high for an extended period of time, the worry is that hospitals will be inundated, stretching bed capacity and the ability for trained staff to care for the flood of new patients.

Overworked staff and overtaxed facilities threaten to erode the quality of care for everyone, not just those battling COVID-19, officials say.

“Unfortunately, we are shattering records, every day,” said Dr. Sara Cody, the health officer for Santa Clara County. “Many of our hospitals have already elected to cancel elective surgeries and other procedures in order to be able to care for the influx of COVID patients.”

There are now 10,070 coronavirus-positive patients hospitalized statewide and 2,360 are in intensive care, state data show. Both those figures are all-time highs.

The current number of hospitalizations has doubled from less than three weeks ago.

“I think everyone at this point really shares with me this deep concern about how do we make sure that people understand, if the numbers don’t start to go down … you look at what I say are horrific scenarios that end up playing out, not just in our county, but across the state,” Ferrer said.

Those, she said, would be “where your morgue can get backed up, where you’re delaying care for people who really need care.”

Given all the distressing data points seen during the recent surge, one relatively bright spot had been that the most devastating metric — the number of deaths — had remained relatively low. But that’s no longer the case.

The state has averaged 120 COVID-19 deaths a day over the last week, a rate not seen in months, according to data compiled by The Times.

Nearly 1,300 Californians have died from COVID-19 in the last 14 days, Times data show. Those deaths combined to push the state past a milestone Monday: 20,000 cumulative coronavirus-related fatalities.

It’s against this backdrop that Gov. Gavin Newsom last week unveiled a fresh round of restrictions, to be implemented when a region’s available ICU capacity drops below 15%.

The new stay-at-home order would require affected communities to limit most retail capacity to 20% and close hair salons, nail salons, public outdoor playgrounds, card rooms, museums, zoos, aquariums and wineries. Restaurants would be able to offer only takeout or delivery as indoor and outdoor dining would be banned.

As of Tuesday, two state-defined regions — Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley — had seen their available ICU capacities tumble low enough to trigger the order. Those restrictions took hold at 11:59 p.m. Sunday and will remain in place for at least three weeks.

Five Bay Area counties — San Francisco, Santa Clara, Contra Costa, Alameda and Marin — also announced last week that they would proactively implement the new restrictions and planned to keep them in place until at least Jan. 4.

Combined, those regions are home to some 33 million Californians, representing 84% of the state’s population.

“The point is to stay at home during this critical time, to bring transmission rates down, to help us get this under control so our hospitals can do what they have done for so long, which is provide high-quality healthcare to all those Californians who need it,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s health and human services secretary, said Monday.

Cases that stem from “dinner tables or activities and plans, travel through Thanksgiving, are going to show up right about now,” he said at a Monday briefing, and “we know we’ll be seeing that for many days to come.”

“We believe,” he added, “that the levels of transmission that we’ve been reporting so far will likely continue to go up some because of those activities around Thanksgiving.”

Though the latest numbers are painting an increasingly bleak picture of the pandemic in California, officials emphasize that everyone — residents and businesses alike — can do their part to help stymie the surge.

Taking simple steps, such as wearing a mask in public, regularly washing your hands and staying home when you’re sick, as well as keeping distance from, and avoiding gatherings with, those outside your household can all make a significant dent, experts and officials say.

Though the next few weeks may be tough, it’s not too late to turn things around, Ferrer said.

“While we know we’re going to see significant increases for the next two to three weeks, it can turn itself around at the moment we all start getting back into the game,” she said. “We don’t have to actually just say, ‘This is inevitable. We’re going to see an overwhelmed healthcare system.’ … We have time, but very little, to get ourselves to a place where that will not be the case.”

Times staff writers Sean Greene and Soumya Karlamangla contributed to this report.




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