California reported extremely high coronavirus numbers Wednesday, blowing past the previous single-day record for new cases by several thousand and also reporting the highest daily death toll of the pandemic.
The state added 53,711 lab-positive cases of COVID-19 to the tally. Shortly after the state’s numbers were updated, California Department of Public Health communications director Ali Bay clarified in a statement that the state has deployed a new “auto processing feature,” collaborating with local public health officers during the ongoing, intense surge.
The implementation of this technology resulted in a backlog of 12,630 previously unprocessed cases being updated into the cumulative total that Bay described as coming from “previous days.”
That leaves 41,081 new cases for Wednesday’s typical reporting period, which still marks California’s single-day record by a margin of nearly 6,000 cases.
State health officials also reported 293 deaths, compared to a previous high of 225 disclosed Saturday.
The figures jolted the two-week daily averages past 30,000 for cases and past 150 for deaths, both also all-time highs as California’s crisis worsens with every passing day. The fatality rate as a 14-day average is now nearly 10% higher than the summer peak.
Halfway through December, California’s flood of coronavirus activity has not eased up at all. The state’s curves for new COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths are all as high and as steep as ever.
Just under 15,000 are hospitalized across California with the virus, with the total on Wednesday doubling summer’s peak of 7,170, state data show. More than one-in-five licensed hospital beds statewide is now occupied by a confirmed COVID-19 patient.
Hospital systems continue to scramble to expand surge capacity and staffing, especially in besieged intensive care units. Almost 3,200 virus patients were in ICUs as of Wednesday’s update. COVID-19 cases and all other severe conditions requiring ICU admission have left a little over 1,300 intensive care beds remaining available statewide.
ICU capacity cratering statewide, Bay Area enters tight order
California on Wednesday had total ICU availability of just over 4%, its lowest rate reported to date during the crisis.
The state said San Joaquin Valley, home to about 7 million people, was back at zero remaining ICU capacity for the third day in the past week. Southern California, where about 20 million reside, had 0.5% availability, a critically low percentage that is the region’s slimmest yet.
The Bay Area region dropped under 15% for the first time, reported at 12.9%, placing the region’s 11 counties into the strict regional stay-at-home order. About half the region’s counties had already entered tighter restrictions voluntarily, before the state directive kicks in. It will go into effect just before midnight Thursday.
The two other California regions had more ICU space available — 14.1% in Greater Sacramento, and 28.1% across the North State.
But there’s also wide variability from county to county within those regions. Placer, which has the second-most residents and hospital beds among the 13 Greater Sacramento counties, on Tuesday reported having zero ICU beds available, down from 21 the preceding Friday.
Numbers fluctuate as virus and non-virus patients are admitted and released at varying rates day-to-day, in addition to changes to staffing and physical space.
By population, 99.95% of California is now in the strict “purple” tier of the reopening framework. And with the Bay Area’s dip in ICU availability, closures for restaurant dining, barbershops, salons and more will be in place within the regional stay-at-home order for more than 98% of Californians.
Late last week, the Newsom administration introduced an “expedited waiver process” for hospitals, making it easier for them to increase the number of patients ICU nurses can treat at once from two to three.
The California Hospital Association supports this, saying it provides necessary flexibility. But the California Nurses Association is strongly opposed.
“The fewer nurses you have, and the more patients each nurse has during this pandemic, the more people die,” said Fresno registered nurse Amy Arlund, who serves on the union’s board of directors.
The state has reported a staggering 425,000 new cases in the past two weeks — more than one-quarter of the total for the 10-month pandemic. This comes as the state is now routinely processing more than a quarter-million tests per day. The positivity rate is now a flat 11%, up from 7% two weeks earlier.
Those numbers make the forecast for the rest of December, and probably most of January at the least, very bleak.
State health chief Dr. Mark Ghaly has said multiple times that the state estimates roughly one-in-eight Californians diagnosed with COVID-19 will require hospitalization for the disease within two weeks. Of those who are hospitalized, almost one-third have their symptoms progress to the point of needing intensive care, Ghaly says.
Because of this, for however long California goes without its case rate flattening back down, we should expect the hospital crisis and elevated death tolls to continue for at least a few weeks afterward.
Skyrocketing infection rates and hospitalizations have prompted the tightest economic restrictions since March, which Ghaly and Gov. Gavin Newsom have both likened to an “emergency brake” action.
To date, more than 1.67 million Californians have tested positive for COVID-19 and 21,481 have died of the virus, according to CDPH.
State buys body bags, Newsom shares grim PSA
Newsom on Tuesday said California recently purchased 5,000 body bags to be distributed in Southern California as the region continues to be hit hard by the current surge.
The governor’s office also posted a public service announcement on pandemic protocols, featuring a woman mourning her father who died of COVID-19.
“Sometimes I just close my eyes and I’m like, ‘Man, I wish I could hug you one last time,’” the woman says in the video, fighting through tears.
The messages, “Wear a mask. Stay 6 feet apart. Wash your hands. Stay home,” then appear on the screen.
This is a deadly disease - a deadly pandemic - and we are at a somber moment in the middle of a third wave.
We must stay vigilant to protect our loved ones from #COVID19.
Stay home. Wear a mask. Stop the surge. pic.twitter.com/LLAgpMXUQ3
— Office of the Governor of California (@CAgovernor) December 15, 2020
What caused — or is still causing — the surge?
State and local health officials have attributed the start of the surge, around early November, to too many people holding private gatherings with friends, family and other loved ones while paying too little attention to mask and social distancing protocols.
As Ghaly and public health officers in capital region counties have explained previously, regardless of which types of activities represent the origin of the surge, it has now grown so explosively with spread so rampant that every activity is riskier because there are simply more people out in the community who are carrying the virus.
Holidays have been points of major concern, never more than during the stretch from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day when many are clumped within just a few weeks.
The weekend before Thanksgiving, air travel in the U.S. hit a high for the pandemic, suggesting many people disregarded health officials’ warnings and convened for multi-household gatherings anyway. California’s infection curve, already steep in November, grew even steeper starting about a week after the holiday, data show.
But we’re now almost three weeks past Thanksgiving, meaning the period of most direct impact from the holiday — people who contracted or transmitted the disease at the dinner table — has likely passed.
The second- and third-generation cases generated from gatherings though — people who contracted COVID-19 from someone who caught it at Thanksgiving, and then people who caught it in turn from those carriers — may still be a significant portion of the tens of thousands of new cases being reported each day.
It is difficult to say for sure: contact tracing efforts grow exponentially more difficult as the volume of new infections far outpaces what the county and state’s staffs and systems can handle.
Sacramento County passes 700 COVID-19 deaths
Coronavirus activity across the six-county Sacramento area continues to grow exponentially. More than 80,000 residents have tested positive and at least 963 have died of the virus since the start of the health crisis.
Thousands of those infections are still considered active, several hundred are hospitalized and dozens are in intensive care units across Sacramento, El Dorado, Placer, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba counties.
Sacramento County has reported a total of 52,182 infections and 711 related deaths during the pandemic, adding 1,130 cases cases and increasing the death toll by 12 on Wednesday.
State data showed there were 470 coronavirus patients in Sacramento County hospitals, declining by three from Tuesday’s record-setting tally of 473. The total includes 93 in intensive care, setting another all-time record and for the first time exceeding the peak from summer.
The county maintained 83 ICU beds, down three compared to Monday, as hospitals work to balance expanding surge capacity with handling severely sick patients.
County health officials have now confirmed 49 virus deaths occurring in the first 10 days of December. Based on preliminary numbers and current hospitalization trends, December’s death toll appears likely to exceed that of November, when at least 131 county residents died. August remains the deadliest month of the pandemic in Sacramento County, at 181 dead.
The county’s latest estimate is that of the 51,000 cases, more than 14,000 are still currently active. That’s a little less than 1% of Sacramento County’s population.
The city of Sacramento has recorded at least 388 virus deaths and nearly 28,000 cases. The latter mark equates to about one in 18 capital city residents having tested positive for the disease.
Yolo County has reported a total of 6,377 infections and 98 deaths. The county added 110 new cases and nine fatalities Tuesday, the latter figure a one-day record.
State data updated Wednesday showed Yolo with 27 virus patients in hospital beds including 16 in intensive care, both record highs, with only one ICU bed still available.
Placer County health officials have reported a total of 9,722 infections and 94 deaths, updated Tuesday with 173 additional cases and one new fatality. The county reported one death Monday and three last Friday.
State data showed 187 hospitalized with 26 in ICUs in Placer County as of Wednesday.
The state and local hospital dashboards showed Placer with zero ICU beds remaining available on Tuesday; state data showed two available on Wednesday.
The reason for the sudden drop, from 21 beds late last week to zero earlier this week, was not immediately clear, but county health director and interim health officer Dr. Robert Oldham told the Board of Supervisors during Tuesday’s meeting that the ICU capacity metric can vary widely day to day and “does not take into account other beds that can be used for critical care during a surge.”
“So while this is a very serious situation, we want to reassure the public that our hospitals have robust surge plans, are constantly adjusting and can still take care of people,” he said.
El Dorado County has reported 4,198 positive test results and eight deaths. The county reported 113 new cases Tuesday after adding 331 on Monday in a report that covered the weekend.
The state on Wednesday reported 32 people hospitalized in El Dorado, setting a new record for the second straight day. Nine were in ICUs, down from 14 two days earlier. Seven ICU beds remain available.
In Sutter County, 5,117 people have been infected and 38 have died. Sutter on Monday reported 394 new cases and four virus deaths for the period including the weekend, then added 69 cases and one fatality Tuesday. County health officials also reported two deaths last Friday and one on Thursday, as the Yuba-Sutter region continues to see an influx of virus deaths.
Yuba County has reported 3,058 infections and 14 dead, adding 170 cases and three fatalities between Friday and Monday’s updates, and then 70 cases and one death Tuesday.
The bi-county health office dashboard on Monday showed 50 Sutter residents hospitalized with 10 in ICUs, plus 15 Yuba residents hospitalized with three in ICUs.
Not all of those 65 are necessarily hospitalized in-county. The lone hospital in the Yuba-Sutter region, Adventist-Rideout, had 59 patients hospitalized with 14 in ICUs and two ICU beds remaining available, according to Wednesday’s update from CDPH.
The Bee’s Kim Bojórquez and Sophia Bollag contributed to this story. Listen to our daily briefing: