California COVID-19 death toll officially surpasses 50,000, most in the U.S.

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Michael McGough
·7 min read
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California’s death toll from the coronavirus officially surpassed 50,000 in a Thursday update from state health officials, soaring to 50,991 after a backlog of Los Angeles County deaths skewed the state to its highest daily death toll of the pandemic.

The California Department of Public Health reports just over 3.46 million positive cases over the course of the pandemic, with virus fatalities still pouring in at a rate of hundreds per day over the past two weeks as the state continues to rebound from its winter surge.

Los Angeles County public health officials announced Wednesday a thorough “vital records review” revealed 806 previously unidentified deaths from Dec. 3 to Feb. 3.

That backlog, along with 136 new deaths reported on Wednesday’s normal timeline, pushed California’s statewide toll to 1,114 reported Wednesday, nearly 350 higher than the previous record. It also skewed the state’s rolling average, pushing the two-week death rate from 349 a day as of Wednesday back up to 395.

Los Angeles, the largest county in the U.S. at about 10 million residents, now accounts for close to 21,000 of California’s coronavirus deaths.

The first 25,000 virus deaths recorded in California took more than 10 months: CDPH reported the first confirmed COVID-19 fatality in February 2020 and said on the final day of 2020 the state surpassed 25,000. The next 25,000 took less than eight weeks.

California’s is the highest death toll of any U.S. state by volume, but it’s not the highest per capita. Fifty-one thousand deaths in a population of 40 million is about 128 per 100,000 residents. According to a New York Times data tracker, that ranks California 30th among the 50 states plus Washington, D.C.

The United States surpassed 500,000 virus deaths earlier this week, the most reported by any nation, and the global death toll was on the brink of 2.5 million as of Thursday morning, according to data maintained by Johns Hopkins University.

COVID-19 infection rates are improving broadly, across the U.S. and within California. The Golden State over the past two weeks has averaged fewer than 6,400 new lab-confirmed cases per day, down from a peak average of nearly 41,000 a day in early January.

Test positivity rate, which can be used as an indicator of true spread of COVID-19 while controlling for changes in testing capacity, has plummeted from 14% to 3.1% since the beginning of the year.

In turn, hospitalizations for COVID-19 have also declined substantially, though they have not yet reached pre-surge levels. The state Thursday reported fewer than 6,000 patients in hospital beds with confirmed COVID-19 for the first time since the week of Thanksgiving, down from a peak of 22,000.

Last October, before the surge took hold, California had plateaued between about 2,200 and 2,400 hospitalized virus patients on any given day.

Latest on California’s vaccination effort

CDPH reported Thursday the state has administered more than 8 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention one day earlier reported that about 5.64 million have received at least one dose, while close to 2.2 million have received both of their doses. According to the CDC, about 18% of California’s adult population is at least partially vaccinated, and 7% are fully vaccinated.

Those doses are all of Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccines, which require two doses.

The Food and Drug Administration is expected in the coming days to grant emergency use authorization to a third vaccine candidate, from Johnson & Johnson, that requires only one dose. The FDA reported Wednesday its analysis found the J&J shot to be safe and effective.

An advisory committee will meet Friday to discuss the J&J vaccine. If the committee recommends emergency use authorization as expected, J&J doses could begin shipping out as early as next week.

Vaccines will help prevent new variants

The most concerning aspect of the coronavirus crisis at the moment is the emergence of genetic variants: mutations of the virus that may cause COVID-19 to become more infectious, more deadly and/or more resistant to vaccines.

Dr. Eric Vail, director of molecular pathology in the Cedars-Sinai Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, says his lab discovered a previously unidentified variant, known as CAL.20C, by accident as it was searching for the variant known as B.1.1.7 that was first identified in the United Kingdom.

“Every once in a while, these mutations will cluster together and will provide some sort of increased fitness for the virus in their environment, and the more people that the virus infects, the more likely you will see these (variants) start to emerge,” Vail said.

Vail, similar to President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, reiterated the way to halt the emergence of new and troubling genetic variants is to stop the virus from spreading and replicating, underscoring the importance and urgency of getting as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible.

“Please don’t wait. If you can get a vaccine, get a vaccine,” Vail said.

Sacramento area by the numbers: Over 2,100 dead

The six-county Sacramento region — Sacramento, El Dorado, Placer, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba counties, which combine for a population of more than 2.5 million — has reported more than 148,000 combined positive cases and at least 2,102 virus deaths over the course of the pandemic.

Sacramento County has confirmed 92,621 cases and at least 1,456 resident deaths from COVID-19. The county on Wednesday added 151 new cases and 10 deaths, following 193 cases and eight fatalities reported Tuesday.

By date of death occurrence, December and January were by far Sacramento County’s two deadliest months of the pandemic. Health officials have confirmed 384 deaths for December, 313 for January and 74 for Feb. 1 through Feb. 20. Of the 10 newly reported Wednesday, eight occurred in February and two in January.

Prior to December, the county’s deadliest month of the pandemic was August, at 181 virus deaths.

The countywide total for hospitalized virus patients held essentially steady, moving from 183 on Wednesday to 182 by Thursday, though the ICU total grew from 50 to 52, state data show.

Placer County health officials have confirmed a total of 19,702 infections and 231 deaths. Placer on Wednesday reported 41 cases and no deaths, following 15 cases and one new fatality reported Tuesday.

State data showed 53 virus patients in Placer hospitals as of Thursday, down from 54 on Wednesday and 64 on Tuesday. The ICU total is at 21 patients.

Yolo County has reported a total of 12,599 cases and 185 deaths. The county added 31 new cases Wednesday following 34 cases and four deaths reported Tuesday.

County officials recently noted that deaths are confirmed in groups, meaning there may be no deaths noted for several days and then many confirmed in a day or two.

State data show Yolo with 12 virus patients hospitalized as of Thursday, up one for the third straight day, while the ICU total has held at six.

El Dorado County has reported 9,086 positive test results and 98 deaths. The county reported 17 new cases and three fatalities Wednesday, following 10 cases and no deaths Tuesday.

El Dorado has reported the vast majority of its virus deaths in the past three months: 94 county residents have died of COVID-19 since Nov. 25, compared to four from last March through mid-November.

State data show El Dorado with four patients hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19, down from six on Wednesday, with one still in intensive care.

In Sutter County, at least 8,826 people have contracted the virus and 96 have died. Officials reported only 18 cases Tuesday and eight on Wednesday.

Yuba County, which shares a health office with Sutter, has reported 5,722 infections and 36 dead, adding seven cases Tuesday and 10 on Wednesday.

The lone hospital serving the Yuba-Sutter bicounty region — Adventist-Rideout in Marysville — had 22 hospitalized virus patients as of Thursday’s update, same as Tuesday after dipping briefly to 20 on Wednesday, but with the ICU total dropping from seven to four.

The Bee’s Cathie Anderson contributed to this story.