After a record-breaking month of fatalities linked to the coronavirus pandemic, California set a grim new milestone over the weekend: 500,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the most of any state.
The overall increase in cases, to more than 512,000, comes as deaths surge. In July, California broke the single-day record for deaths five times, and three of those record-setting days occurred last week.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday that the Central Valley has overtaken Imperial County as the state’s latest hotspot. Eight counties there have seen hospitalization and infection rates that far outstrip the rest of the state.
“We don’t want to see it go to where Imperial went,” Newsom said.
Over the last two weeks, California saw an average of 121 deaths per day, Newsom said. On Friday, the state reported 214 fatalities, 21% higher than the previous record set two days prior.
Still, there are some early signs of hope, Newsom said. The number of people hospitalized statewide has fallen about 10% over two weeks, and admissions to intensive-care units have fallen by 5%, he said.
The share of positive COVID-19 tests has fallen to 7% even as the state has significantly expanded its testing capacity, Newsom said.
The rate of Californians testing positive is “not where it needs to be and it’s still too high,” Newsom said. “But again, it’s good to see this number trending down, not trending up.”
Newsom attributed the modest improvements to better adherence to mask rules and social distancing and new “very, very difficult” state rules that shut down bars, restaurants and other industries.
But two weeks of data heading in the right direction are not enough to instill confidence, he said.
“We can quickly find ourselves back to where we were just a few weeks ago, a month ago, with significant increases if we do not maintain our vigilance, if we do not maintain our focus,” Newsom said. “This virus is not going away. It’s not just going to take Labor Day weekend off. It’s not going to take Halloween off, the holidays off.”
About 97% of the state’s residents live in a county that Newsom has flagged for high rates of disease transmission, high rates of positive tests or both. The 38 counties on the list include every county in the Bay Area and in Southern California.
The number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 in Los Angeles and Orange counties has dropped over the last week, which could suggest that steps to limit the spread of the virus are working, local health officials said.
“Simply put: Closing the bars worked,” said Barbara Ferrer, the public health director for L.A. County. “It also worked to limit indoor dining at restaurants, and to move the operations of various businesses and institutions outdoors.”
Over the last two weeks, 2,000 people were hospitalized on average in L.A. County, and Monday’s figures were the lowest in a month. Of the 1,784 patients hospitalized Monday, Ferrer said, 30% are in intensive care and 18% are on ventilators.
Ferrer said she hopes that the lower hospitalization rate, though still high, is an early indicator that deaths will fall in coming weeks.
Every county resident must wear a face mask and avoid social gatherings to continue to slow the spread of COVID-19, Ferrer said. When the transmission rate falls below 100 cases per 100,000 residents, she said, schools may be able to reopen and many people will return to work.
“We need to understand that we are, in fact, creating a new normal,” Ferrer said. “We can’t go back to life as we knew it before March. Not right now.”
In Imperial County, a surge in COVID-19 cases earlier this summer left the county’s two hospitals so overwhelmed that more than 650 patients were moved to healthcare facilities in other parts of the state, Newsom said. The number of new daily cases is now steadily falling.
In the Central Valley, Kern County is now seeing 1,370 positive cases per 100,000 residents, the highest in the state, according to the Los Angeles Times coronavirus case tracker. Kings, Merced, Colusa, Tulare, Stanislaus, Fresno and San Joaquin counties are all seeing more than 500 cases per 100,000 residents.
Three-quarters of California’s COVID-19 victims were older than 65, according to state data. But the share of younger people who are sickened, and hospitalized, with the virus is rising.
In Tulare County, 1,231 children and teenagers have tested positive for COVID-19, more than the 1,137 positive cases among people older than 65, health officials said
The first child in California to die of complications from COVID-19 was a teenager in Fresno, officials said last week.
“This is a sober reminder of how deadly this disease is, and how it can impact anybody,” Newsom said.
The pandemic continues to disproportionately affect Black and Latino residents, and the disparity is widening. After adjusting for population, Latino residents are now 3.1 times more likely to test positive than white people.