California has its most coronavirus deaths in a single day as cases, hospitalizations continue to surge

More Californians died from COVID-19 on Tuesday than any other day, the latest milestone in an accelerating pandemic that is infecting and hospitalizing residents at levels far eclipsing any seen before.

Tuesday’s death toll, 219, edged out the previous single-day high of 214, which was recorded July 31, according to data compiled by The Times.

The latest figure may be a harbinger of higher death tolls. Until this past week, California had topped 200 daily coronavirus-related deaths only four times. That number has been exceeded twice in the last five days.

The weekly fatality average — 135 Californians per day over the last week — is also at a level not seen since the darkest days of the state’s summertime surge.

A month ago, the state was averaging about 44 daily deaths.

Nearly 1,400 Californians have died from COVID-19 in the last 14 days. Since the pandemic began, the disease has killed more than 20,200 statewide.

The sharp spike in fatalities seen over the last few weeks is the realization of what public health officials have long feared — that a tsunami of new coronavirus cases would not only swamp the state’s hospitals with patients, but swell the number of residents dying from the disease.

“There’s no value you really can place on a person’s husband or daughter or their friend or their loved one,” Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said during a briefing Monday. “And every death is a tragedy, particularly those deaths that, in some ways, if we were all better at doing our part, we could be preventing right now.”

Given the speed and ferocity with which the pandemic has exploded statewide, officials say it’s more important than ever for residents to protect themselves and their loved ones from becoming infected.

“Our message is: As much as you can, stay at home,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s health and human services secretary, said Tuesday. “We know that it works. We know that we can bring our transmission rates down.”

Still, conditions statewide are continuing to deteriorate.

California recorded 34,490 new coronavirus cases Monday and an all-time daily high of 35,400 Tuesday. Prior to this week, the state had never reached 23,000 new cases in a single day.

Those figures are especially worrying given the time lag between infection, and possible hospitalization and death. Typically, those who fall ill enough to require hospitalization do so two to three weeks after they are infected — meaning this week’s astronomically high case counts may trigger a new flood of patients later this month.

Already, California hospitals are caring for more COVID-19 patients than they ever have.

There are 11,012 coronavirus-positive patients hospitalized statewide, according to the latest tally, with 2,506 of those in intensive care. Both those figures are all-time highs.

As with cases, it’s not just the raw numbers that are concerning for public health officials but the rate of growth.

Over the last two weeks, the number of people hospitalized with the coronavirus has grown by 78%. Intensive care admissions are up 75% over that same period.

Though hospitals can expand their capacities should the need arise, their ability to do so isn’t infinite. They are further constrained when it comes to ICU beds, which come with specially trained healthcare professionals and high-tech equipment and are especially critical for patients with severe cases of COVID-19, who may require ventilators and round-the-clock care.

Amid the continuing crush of COVID-19 patients, some ICUs are already feeling the crunch.

At least three counties in the San Joaquin Valley had reached zero capacity as of Tuesday. That same day, Santa Clara County was down to 31 available intensive care unit beds — just 9.5% left of its capacity — to serve Northern California’s most populous county, home to nearly 2 million people.

“All the things that you’re hearing about how impacted our hospitals are, about how dire this situation with our ICUs is — it’s absolutely true,” said Dr. Rais Vohra, the Fresno County Department of Public Health’s interim health officer.

The potential strain on that precious resource is why the state made ICU numbers the trigger for its latest round of coronavirus-related restrictions.

Under the new system, officials divided the state into five regions: Southern California, the San Joaquin Valley, the Bay Area, the Greater Sacramento area and rural Northern California.

Should a region’s available ICU capacity drop below 15%, it is required to implement a stay-at-home order, which restricts retail capacity to 20% and shuts down outdoor restaurant dining, hair salons, nail salons, card rooms, museums, zoos, aquariums and wineries.

Public outdoor playgrounds were originally listed among the areas that would have to close, but the state reversed that requirement in new guidance released Wednesday morning. L.A. County officials announced Wednesday that they would also reopen playgrounds.

Already, the new stay-at-home restrictions have been implemented in the Southern California and San Joaquin Valley regions. Those areas had seen their ICU availabilities tumble to 9% and 4.2%, respectively, as of Wednesday morning.

Greater Sacramento — which encompasses Alpine, Amador, Butte, Colusa, El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Sacramento, Sierra, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba counties — dipped to 14.3% ICU availability as of Wednesday, according to the state. The stay-at-home order will take effect in that region at 11:59 p.m. Thursday.

Five Bay Area counties — San Francisco, Santa Clara, Contra Costa, Alameda and Marin — have proactively implemented the new restrictions.

The other state-defined regions all remain above the 15% threshold for now, but officials warn that could quickly change and that the stakes for all Californians remain high.

“It is the worst we have seen, and it’s continuing to worsen,” said Dr. Ahmad Kamal, Santa Clara County’s director of health preparedness. “Hospitals are nearing capacity, our staffing is stretched thin — not just in our county, but throughout the state and throughout the nation.”

Times staff writers Faith E. Pinho and Lila Seidman contributed to this report.

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