Coronavirus updates: California officially passes 3 million cases; hospital rates drop

Michael McGough
·9 min read

California has officially reached 3 million confirmed coronavirus cases, the same week the U.S. death toll from the disease surpassed 400,000, with each figure driven by immense winter surges of infections and hospitalizations.

But there’s good news: COVID-19 cases in California are not currently growing at an exponential rate, Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said in a Tuesday news briefing. He suggested that the “hardest part” of a surge that gripped the state from early November through all of December and into January appears to be behind us.

“We’re in a posture where the spread of COVID is not growing in the state but decreasing — just a little more slowly than we would like,” Ghaly said.

More than 3.01 million Californians have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 34,433 of them have died from the disease, according to the California Department of Public Health.

The state in Wednesday’s update added about 22,400 new cases, well below recent averages that have hovered around 40,000 — but also added 694 new deaths, the second-highest daily total of the pandemic.

Ghaly also noted COVID-19 hospitalizations are down close to 9% in the past two weeks, and the weekly positive rate — the percentage of diagnostic tests for the virus returning positive — has fallen below 10% for the first time in several weeks. The two-week average dropped from 12.6% on Tuesday to 11.3% on Wednesday.

“These are rays of hope shining through,” Ghaly said.

He said, though, that there is still “a tremendous amount of COVID” in our communities as we observe decline from record-high peaks, and it remains critically important to follow health protocols — wearing masks, avoiding gatherings with those outside one’s own household and staying home as much as possible.

This includes those who have been inoculated, because researchers are still studying whether the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines prevent transmission in addition to protecting recipients.

Health officials also remain concerned about emerging genetic variants of COVID-19 that have been identified in recent weeks by laboratories. The biggest concern is that a variant will arise that is both highly infectious and resistant in some way to the vaccines that are being deployed.

Patient totals of close to 20,000 confirmed cases in hospital beds and over 4,600 in intensive care units continue to put heavy stress on health care systems, but both figures are lower than had been projected in the wake of the Christmas and New Year’s Eve holidays. Ghaly said the state projected weeks ago that there would be about 25,000 hospitalized with the virus at this time. As of Wednesday, the official count was 19,979. It was California’s first day with fewer than 20,000 hospitalized since Dec. 28.

Recent decline has been slower in intensive care units, with the patient total down about 2% in the past seven days. The ICU total takes longer to fall than hospitalizations, in part because some patients who are ill enough to require intensive care can remain admitted for extended periods of time, Ghaly said.

The death rate, which correlates strongly with the ICU patient total and lags behind other metrics, remains very high in California. CDPH has reported about 495 deaths per day over the past two weeks, up from a two-week average of 50 a day at the start of November.

County-by-county data show improvement

Ghaly mentioned Tuesday that California’s improving numbers are promising because transmission rates appear to be declining broadly throughout most of the state, in hard-hit regions as well as less severely impacted areas.

CDPH on Tuesday released its weekly data for the reopening framework — aka the color-coded tier list, which has regained relevance in Greater Sacramento after the 13-county region was removed from the regional stay-at-home order last week. This week’s assessment surveyed case data for the week ending Jan. 9.

Most counties’ coronavirus metrics remain much higher than health officials would like them to be, but they have dropped significantly compared to recent weeks.

Greater Sacramento is faring well relative to the rest of the state. Eleven of its 13 counties had test positivity rates below 15%, which was the statewide average for the survey week. Sutter and Yuba were the exceptions, each at about 18%.

The two most populous of the 13, Sacramento and Placer, each had test positivity of 11.4%. Both were around 14% the previous week.

The vast majority of California by population, and all of Greater Sacramento except tiny Alpine and Sierra counties, remain in the purple tier. Purple is not as strict as the regional stay-at-home order, and allows for restaurants to reopen outdoor dining areas, but it is the tightest of the four tiers.

The criteria for promotion from the purple tier into the less-restrictive red tier, which among other changes would allow restaurants to reopen for limited indoor dining, are still very stringent relative to the current case and positivity rates across California. The cutoffs between the purple and red tiers are 8% for test positivity and seven new daily cases per 100,000.

While CDPH reported more than a dozen counties, including Yolo and San Francisco, under 8% positivity, all counties in California had a case rate above seven per 100,000. In fact, 51 of the state’s 58 counties are still above quadruple that threshold (28 per 100,000), state data show.

Case rate has become an important metric to follow because CDPH, in recently formalized guidelines for K-6 campuses to reopen, said schools may only open in counties with fewer than 25 daily new cases per 100,000 (Gov. Gavin Newsom had previously, informally, referenced a cutoff of 28 new cases per 100,000).

In most of the capital region, including Sacramento, El Dorado, Placer and Yuba counties, the rate as of this week’s update was still between 45 and 55 cases per 100,000.

It’s very difficult to predict how long it may take for any given county in the region to decline below 25 daily new cases per 100,000. Sacramento County, according to the local health office, was last below that mark in early November.

Six-county Sacramento area approaching 1,600 deaths

The six counties that make up the bulk of the 13-county Greater Sacramento region — Sacramento, El Dorado, Placer, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba counties — have reported about 129,000 combined positive cases and recorded at least 1,588 virus deaths.

Sacramento County has confirmed 81,132 cases since the onset of the pandemic, and at least 1,128 of those residents have died of COVID-19.

The county on Wednesday added 454 new cases and 17 deaths, after confirming on Tuesday 2,738 new cases and 31 fatalities for the four-day reporting window caused by the holiday weekend.

By date of death occurrence, December marked by far Sacramento County’s deadliest month of the pandemic. County health officials have confirmed 364 deaths for the month — an average of nearly 12 a day. The death toll has officially more than doubled that of August, when 181 county residents died of the virus.

Local health officials say at least 84 county residents died of the virus between Jan. 1 and Jan. 13, with that figure still very preliminary. At least 64 died during the first week of 2021.

More than half of the county’s death toll, 620 have come in residents of the capital city.

Virus hospitalizations in Sacramento County have fluctuated some but generally declined, while the ICU patient total remains elevated. The overall patient total fell from 452 on Tuesday to 447 on Wednesday. The ICU total, which hit a record-high at 130 on Tuesday, dropped slightly to 128 on Wednesday, but the available ICU bed total went from 67 to 66.

Placer County health officials have confirmed a total of 17,380 infections and 180 deaths, adding 619 cases and seven fatalities in a Tuesday update covering the past four days, following 229 cases and one new death reported last Friday.

Data show Placer’s hospitalized total declining from a peak of 216 near the end of 2020, while the ICU rate fluctuates. State data on Wednesday showed 149 hospitalized in Placer, up from 148 on Tuesday, with the ICU total growing from 24 to 26. CDPH data indicates there are now eight ICU beds available, down from 11 reported Tuesday and 18 reported Monday.

Yolo County has reported a total of 10,316 cases and 131 deaths, adding 228 cases Tuesday. The county most recently reported a fatality on Jan. 13.

State data showed Yolo with 30 virus patients in hospital beds on Wednesday, same as Tuesday, but with the ICU patient total falling from 10 to eight.

However, CDPH continues to report zero ICU beds available in Yolo. A recent data correction cratered an inaccurate total of 23 available beds reported Friday down to two on Saturday. A Yolo County spokesperson recently told The Bee that the state’s tabulation of available ICU beds was inaccurate, and that the true total has routinely been in the low single digits.

El Dorado County has reported 7,826 positive test results and 44 deaths. The county on Tuesday reported 311 new cases and zero fatalities for the past four days. El Dorado reported three deaths last Thursday and three more on Friday.

Following just four deaths from March through mid-November, at least 40 El Dorado residents died of COVID-19 between Nov. 25 and Jan. 7, county officials report.

State health officials reported a record-high 46 virus patients in El Dorado on Jan. 12, but the figure has fallen significantly, down to 22 by Wednesday. The ICU total fell from nine on Tuesday to four Wednesday, though the available bed total also fell from eight to five, according to CDPH.

In Sutter County, at least 7,484 people have contracted the virus and 78 have died. Sutter on Tuesday added 270 new cases and one death for a four-day reporting window.

Sutter County reports 41 residents hospitalized with COVID-19, including 11 in intensive care.

Neighboring Yuba County has reported 4,818 infections and 27 dead, adding 133 new cases and no deaths for the four-day holiday weekend reporting period.

Yuba said Tuesday it had 32 residents hospitalized with the virus with six in the ICU.

Not all patients are hospitalized in-county, but the only hospital serving the Yuba-Sutter bicounty region — Adventist-Rideout in Marysville — had 50 hospitalized virus patients as of Wednesday’s state data update, down from 54 on Tuesday, and with the ICU total dropping from 20 patients to 16. The hospital has three available ICU beds, up from just one on Tuesday.