Hospital personnel sanitize medical equipment aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy off the coast of southern California. File/Reuters
Rong-Gong Lin II, Luke Money and Soumya Karlamangla, Tribune News Service
Despite hospitals overflowing with patients, heart-breaking numbers of deaths and COVID-19 infection rates hovering at dangerous levels, there are some signs that the daily increase in the number of coronavirus cases is beginning to flatten in California.
It may take a few more days or weeks to be assured of the trend — and the flattening could be reversed if people ease up further on mask wearing and social distancing. But a number of state and local officials are voicing cautious optimism that the unrestrained, exponential daily worsening of the pandemic has slowed.
Gov. Gavin Newsom described the flattening numbers as “light at the end of the tunnel,” adding that the coronavirus test positivity rate and the number of people in hospitals and intensive care units with COVID-19 have been declining.
“We’ve seen some encouraging signs,” Newsom said. “But now, more than ever, it’s incumbent upon us not to let our guard down, not to let our masks off and to make sure that we’re doing everything in our power to maintain that discipline purposefulness to work our way through yet another surge.”
Even in hard-hit Los Angeles County, there were glimmers last Friday that the crisis might no longer be worsening, at least for now. But conditions in hospitals are so dire that officials say there is little to celebrate, and there remains concern that things could worsen quickly.
“It’s hard to know what to make of a bump up one day (and) a slightly lower number another day,” said Dr. Paul Simon, chief science officer for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. “I’m hopeful that we’re plateauing. We’re plateauing at a very, very high level, unfortunately. … This is much too high a level of community spread.”
California hit one of its worst average daily numbers of new coronavirus cases on Sunday — nearly 45,000 cases a day, the second-highest figure of the pandemic. But since then, the number has stopped increasing, and is floating between 41,000 and 44,000 cases a day.
The last time California recorded a record number of COVID-19 hospitalised patients was on Jan. 6, topping out at 21,936. The last record number for greatest number of COVID-19 ICU patients was on Sunday, with 4,868 in the ICU.
By Thursday, there were 20,998 people with COVID-19 in California’s hospitals, including 4,745 in the ICU.
Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state health and human services secretary, said in an interview that the recent relative improvements in the pandemic trends are a sign that the regional stay-at-home orders that began being put in place about six weeks ago are working.
Nothing is assured there still won’t be a significant surge in the weeks ahead, but there is a bit more optimism that the recent surge was “blunted ... compared to what we were bracing for,” Ghaly said.
But it could be only a momentary bright spot as officials express concern about a more contagious variant of the coronavirus, first identified in Britain in September, which is expected to circulate more widely in California and could quickly become the dominant variety by March.
Preliminary studies suggest it’s about 50% more transmissible than the conventional variety, and if more people get infected, hospitalisations will worsen and more people will die. It has already been identified in San Diego and San Bernardino counties.
“We’re quite concerned about this variant because we’ve seen what’s happened in England, where it went from being a relatively infrequent source of infection in the early fall to ... being the predominant strain in southeast England,” Simon said.
Simon acknowledged that the public is exhausted with battling the pandemic. And “we’ve seen over the last several months less adherence to our restrictions. … We can implement additional restrictions, but unless they’re adhered to, they’re not going to have the desired impact.”
“I think our greatest hope, to be honest, is to roll out this vaccine as quickly as possible. We’re working hard to do that and to continue to implore folks to adhere as much as possible to our restrictions,” he said.
This is with reference to your report, “World coronavirus death toll nears 1.6 million” (Dec. 13). This is indeed a grim reality. The only silver lining is that inoculations are also starting in the US and Canada.
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