California warns it cannot afford a Christmas Covid surge as hospitals near capacity

Some regions have been out of ICU capacity for days

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Wednesday 23 December 2020 18:28 GMT
Coronavirus in numbers

California officials and medical experts are begging residents to avoid in-person gatherings over the holidays, as a post-Thanksgiving Covid surge rocks the state, with over half a million new cases in just two weeks and maxed out hospitals rationing care.

“Another spike in cases in the winter holidays will be disastrous for our hospital system and ultimately will mean many more people simply won’t be with us in 2021,” Los Angeles County’s public health director, Barbara Ferrer, warned at a briefing.

The surge began with a vengeance in early November, and only got worse as Californians ignored public health guidance and gathered in-person over Thanksgiving.

Now, the coronavirus situation across the Golden State is beyond grim. Cases have increased almost sevenfold since the beginning of November, even higher in regions like Sacramento County. Hospitalisations have skyrocketed too, jumping 65 percent in the last two weeks to nearly 19,000 people on Tuesday, forcing facilities to care for people in hallways, conference rooms, and pop-up ICUs – if they have space at all.

As the state adds more than 40,000 new cases a day, hospitals are running out of capacity even in the temporary emergency units they set up to deal with the surge. Populous regions like Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley have been at zero ICU capacity for days, and the state is updating its hospital guidance to account for how care might be rationed if these trends continue.

“We don’t have space for anybody. We’ve been holding patients for days because we can’t get them transferred, can’t get beds for them," Dr. Alexis Lenz, an emergency room physician at the medical center in Imperial County, near the US-Mexico border, told KPBS.

Earlier this month, the state instituted a strict new stay-at-home order tied to ICU space, which shuts down outdoor dining and hair salons if regions dip below 15 percent emergency capacity. Nearly the entire state is in that category now, and health officials said Tuesday average ICU capacity across California was just 1.4 percent, a new low.

Given the apocalyptic scenario, California leaders have warned residents over and over again not to repeat past mistakes and avoid unsafe practices.

“What we’re seeing right now is the Thanksgiving Day celebration effect,” Stephen Parodi, the associate executive director of the Permanente Medical Group, said on Tuesday, part of a joint campaign from major California hospital systems to urge safe practices. “It is related to the travel, it is related to the gathering. We understand why people have done it, but we are really making a clarion and desperate call to Californians to not repeat what happened during Thanksgiving.”

Earlier this week, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, whose city has been one of the main drivers of the surge, warned that there’s a “straight line” between the surge and holiday get-togethers.

“If you gather for the holidays, our hospitals will be overrun,” he said. “This is not a good sign, and it’s a recipe for a Christmas and New Year’s surge.”

California hospitals have administered more than 70,000 doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine, and a shipment of 110,000 doses of the Moderna treatment has arrived in the state.

The Trump administration and Pfizer are reportedly close to a deal for tens of millions more doses of the vaccine, which could arrive during the spring and summer, with the federal government helping the drugmaker source supplies, The Washington Post reports.

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