SACRAMENTO — After breaking a daily coronavirus testing record over the July 4 holiday weekend, California Governor Gavin Newsom on Monday said hospitalizations remain alarmingly high as COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the state’s largest counties.
Continuing a disturbing weekslong trend in the Golden State, Newsom reported a 50% increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations and a corresponding 39% spike in intensive care patients over the last two weeks.
Newsom says most of the new infections are coming out of 23 counties officials have placed on a monitoring list and that regulators are ramping up enforcement of the state’s pandemic-related orders for both businesses and residents.
“This pandemic is still in front of us and continues to spread at rates we have not experienced in the state of California since the beginning of this pandemic,” Newsom said.
Reviving daily press briefings initiated during the early stages of the pandemic, Newsom told reporters that a record 127,000 tests were conducted on Saturday. Despite the rise in the number of people hospitalized with the virus (5,790) and a record-breaking single-day increase of 3,187 new infections in Los Angeles County, Newsom attempted to calm residents’ nerves by claiming the number of open hospital beds is “ample” and ventilators remain “plentiful.”
The virus continues to spread in urban counties like L.A., Orange and Sacramento, as well as mostly rural areas including Fresno, Imperial and Colusa. Counties reported nearly 5,700 new cases Monday and the state’s 7-day average for new infections is 7,800.
Across the state, 24 people died over the weekend, bringing the toll to 6,331 since the pandemic began.
In the last several days, Los Angeles County’s infection rate exploded as more young adults tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Hospitalizations in the county are on the rise, with 1,921 people currently being treated for COVID-19 according to public health officials. This represents the highest number of people hospitalized for the virus, and half are between the ages of 18 and 40.
“We are in a new chapter of our response,” said L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer on Monday. “Cases are surging, hospitalization are increasing and mostly this is all reflection of a lot more community spread.”
More than 116,000 people in L.A. County have been infected with the virus and over 3,500 have died since the pandemic began, according to public health officials.
The county saw more than 3,000 new infections Friday and roughly 8,000 cases over the holiday weekend, with nearly 1,600 cases reported on Monday. That figure could be artificially low due to the long weekend but continues to show a trend of rising infections.
Health officials say they don’t know whether residents practiced social distancing over the Independence Day weekend. Results will begin to show up in the next two weeks when residents start to show symptoms from the virus, said Ferrer.
The weeks after Memorial Day saw a spike of positive cases, according to county health data.
“It’s clear that after months of quarantine combined… we’ve had a lot of people disregard the very practices that slowed the spread,” said Ferrer.
In total, over 1.1 million tests have been administered with a 9% positive rate, but health officials note the 7-day rate is roughly 10%. Most positive cases are among people between the ages of 18 and 40.
One spot of good news in L.A. County: COVID-19 deaths are on the decline across the county.
Meanwhile, state public health officials have placed a total of 23 counties on the list due to a variety of factors, mainly for elevated recent hospitalizations and hospital capacity. New additions to the coronavirus watchlist include San Diego, Monterey and Marin.
The state’s 7-day positivity rate — the number of positive cases among residents receiving COVID-19 tests, a key indicator of community spread of the virus — is above 7% for the first time in months. The 14-day rate stands at 6.8%, up from 4.9% two weeks ago.
As part of efforts to prevent overcrowding and large gatherings, Newsom said inspectors from the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control visited nearly 6,000 bars and restaurants over the holiday weekend to ensure they were following recently enacted indoor dining bans. He cast the inspections as mostly “educational” and noted just 52 citations were given.
“The enforcement is not just about being punitive it’s also about educating people, allowing people to make modifications,” Newsom said.
Along with the hospitality industry, Newsom said workplace safety agencies contacted 440,000 additional businesses to ensure they are following state guidelines. He added that some local law enforcement agencies have begun enforcing the mandatory mask order on residents and that fines can range from $100 to $1,000 dollars.
California was widely praised for its early response to the coronavirus, as it was the first to implement a statewide lockdown in March. The mandatory shelter-in-place order helped prevent a run on the state’s more than 400 hospitals and bought breathing room, giving Newsom and counties time to stockpile medical supplies and build temporary hospitals.
Hoping to preserve gains made during the spring lockdown, Newsom last month ordered the state’s 40 million residents to wear masks and face coverings when shopping, riding public transit and in other public settings. Two weeks later the Democratic governor directed restaurants, bars and other establishments in counties experiencing a surge in infections to suspend indoor operations for at least 21 days.
Pressed by reporters whether he allowed counties to reopen too early, Newsom contended California could continue to reopen safely and “mitigate community spread” through the widespread use of masks and face coverings.
Aside from potential fines for residents and businesses, Newsom has threatened to withhold funding for counties if they shun the mask and various other pandemic orders issued in recent months.
Newsom and lawmakers set aside in the new state budget a total of $2.5 billion that is contingent upon individual counties complying with the orders. Newsom highlighted his ability to steer funding away from offenders when asked about how the state will respond if local law enforcement decides to ignore the mask mandate.
“If they’re simply unwilling to do it, then we will redirect those dollars to communities that are,” said the former mayor of San Francisco.
The pandemic has also spread to the state capitol, as Los Angeles Assemblywoman Autumn Burke announced Monday she has tested positive after a “mask-to-mask” encounter with an infected person at the statehouse on June 26. Both the Assembly and Senate are on summer recess, but Burke’s announcement spurred legislative leaders to close the capitol Monday for further cleaning.
“Currently, my daughter and I have no symptoms, but will be remaining in quarantine until released by a doctor,” tweeted Burke, D-Marina Del Ray.
When asked about the budding disaster at San Quentin State Prison — where over 1,300 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 — Newsom said plans are being made to “decompress” the prison population by streamlining parole and probation processes. He added that the state must ensure those released early have housing options and are not sent “out to park benches and homeless shelters,” but would not confirm whether he plans to visit San Quentin or other state prisons in the near future.
Last week a federal judge said he was dismayed by what he saw after touring two separate California prisons and urged the state to quickly release medically vulnerable inmates.
“There’s no break, there’s no holidays; it’s a top priority for our administration,” Newsom said of the virus’ indiscriminate spread through the correctional system.
San Quentin, a 168-year-old prison in Marin County north of San Francisco, reported zero confirmed Covid-19 cases in May. That was before 121 prisoners were transferred there in late May from the California Institution for Men in Chino, a prison with the deadliest Covid-19 outbreak in the state.
According to state data, more than 5,300 cases have been confirmed in the prison system in addition to the nearly 1,000 workers who have contracted the virus. As of Monday, 28 inmates have died after testing positive, including 16 in Chino and six in San Quentin.
The mounting deaths and new cases have resulted in a shakeup within California’s prison system.
A federal court-appointed receiver in charge of California prisons announced a series of leadership moves Monday, including a new health care services director.
“We are in unprecedented times as we deal with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Receiver J. Clark Kelso in a statement. “In order to meet current response needs while also working toward further delegation of medical care back to state control, it has become evident that a reorganization is necessary for long-term sustainability.”
— By Nick Cahill and Nathan Solis