California: rise in Covid-19 cases raises fears over reopening and protests

<span>Photograph: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images</span>
Photograph: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The number of coronavirus cases in California is on the rise after weeks of optimism that infections had slowed, raising fears that plans to reopen counties, along with mass protests against police brutality, could accelerate transmission of the virus.

According to numbers from Johns Hopkins University, which has been tracking coronavirus cases and deaths, California is one of 20 states that have seen an uptick in cases in the past five days.

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Just this week, daily cases of Covid-19 hit a new high across the state, topping 3,000 new daily confirmed cases for the second time in a week and contributing to the 115,000 cases and more than 4,300 deaths the state has reported since the pandemic began.

California has been held up as a model for its response to the coronavirus, locking down earlier, and being slower to lift shelter-in-place orders compared with other states.

But recent weeks have seen counties push back on the orders, in some cases reopening sections of the economy in defiance of orders from Gavin Newsom, California’s governor.

David Eisenman, the director of the Center for Public Health and Disasters at UCLA, said some of the rise was to be expected as counties accelerate plans to reopen and warm weather draws Californians to beaches and parks. An increase in testing, too, could play a role.

“It’s not terribly surprising, given the timing. It’s to be expected as more people are moving and interacting in the community,” said Eisenman.

Demonstrators hold signs in front of the district attorney’s office protesting the death of George Floyd, in Los Angeles.
Demonstrators hold signs in front of the district attorney’s office protesting the death of George Floyd, in Los Angeles. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images

But he said it was impossible to pinpoint which factors are most directly responsible for the rise – especially in the weeks ahead, when cases of people who have attended mass protests could show up.

The state’s overall increase masks local flare-ups, including an outbreak in southern California’s Imperial county that’s seen nearly 900 new cases and 11 new deaths in the past two weeks.

“The Imperial Valley has a horrendous outbreak going on right now,” Dr George Rutherford, UC San Francisco epidemiologist and infectious diseases expert told the Los Angeles Times.

In southern California, home to most of the state’s cases, Los Angeles county tallied almost 10,000 cases just last week, including a single-day record of 2,050 cases, according to data from the state’s public health department.

Despite concerns over the spike in cases, efforts to monitor the outbreak could be blunted by the testing facilities that have closed or modified their hours amid widespread protests over the death of George Floyd, who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis.

At least 20 of the 30 testing sites overseen by the city and county of Los Angeles have been affected.

Meantime, northern California’s San Francisco bay-area counted 263 new cases on Monday, raising the total to 13,655. The region’s weekly average of new cases was 237 last week – down from the first week of April, when the seven-day average peaked at 249.

Mark Essick, the sheriff of Sonoma county, generated headlines last week when he said he would refuse to enforce the county’s stay-at-home order. But just yesterday he reversed course, telling the Press Democrat that he and his deputies would enforce the current health order until 8 June to the limited degree that enforcement has been needed.

Cases are up, too, in Alameda county – the region’s second most populous – with particularly high case rates in historically disadvantaged East Oakland.

California counties are in different phases of reopening economies, complicating a coordinated response to the new outbreaks.

For instance as cases spike in Los Angeles, where a stay-at-home order remains in effect, some bars and dine-in restaurants have reopened in San Diego, just two hours south.

That has public health officials worried about a second wave of cases before the first wave has completely passed, which could slow efforts to reopen California.

“It’s very possible this means we don’t reopen as fast as we wanted,” said Eisenman.

Racism is as bad for health as Covid-19

David Eisenman

At the top of Eisenman’s concerns, however, are tactics that law enforcement has been using to disperse crowds as thousands march in protests, including teargas and pepper spray.

Alongside a list of public health experts, Eisenman sent a letter calling on law enforcement to curb the use of chemical agents on crowds altogether.

“Civil unrest over George Floyd’s murder during this Sars-Cov-2 pandemic will increase community transmission of this highly contagious virus and contribute to increased incidence of morbidity and mortality associated with Covid-19,” reads the letter.

“The issue of teargas is central to Covid,” Eisenman told the Guardian. “Too much has been made about physical distance protesters should abide by, and not enough has been said about the tactics law enforcement is using”.

“The use of teargas and pepper spray is going to fuel any spreading that was going to occur anyway,” he said. “It causes people to cough and sneeze – on each other, and on the police if they get rounded up and confined. Cops are putting people side by side, removing their masks, and cuffing them so they can’t cover their mouths”.

Eisenman is said it was crucial for those who have or will be attending protests, including journalists, to follow precautions when they return home, including self-isolation and testing within three days of attending a demonstration.

Still, Eisenman sees the protests as a necessary step in affecting change, and is calling for safe practices as they continue.

“Racism is as bad for health as Covid-19,” Eisenman said. “Probably even worse.”