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SACRAMENTO — California’s holiday COVID-19 wave appears to have crested, with state officials announcing Tuesday that hospitalizations and new infections are starting to decrease for the first time in weeks.

In the most upbeat pandemic briefing of the new year, California Health and Human Services chief Mark Ghaly told reporters key trends are finally “moving in the right direction” and the state has trimmed once-dire hospitalization spike predictions for February.

Ghaly said the New Year’s COVID-19 wave predicted by experts didn’t fully materialize and as a result, hospitalizations have actually decreased by nearly 10% over the last two weeks.

“Good news demonstrating that we are seeing some reductions in transmission,” Ghaly said. “The spread of COVID is not growing in the state, but decreasing, even just a little more slowly than we would like.”

While the state still averaged more than 35,000 new cases per day over the last week and became the first to record 3 million total infections, the statewide positivity rate has declined 8.7% over the last 14 days.

In addition to the good news about the smaller COVID-19 wave, Ghaly said the state’s effective reproductive number — a key indicator of community spread — has dropped below 1, meaning the average infected Californian is spreading the disease to less than one person.

Statewide, just over 20,000 people remain hospitalized with the virus along with over 4,000 in intensive care units. Though Ghaly said beds could continue to fill up in the next week or so and several emergency sites will remain in operation, he doesn’t expect hospitalizations to hit the 25,000 mark the state’s models projected earlier this month.

Ghaly added the cumulative data shows the curve is beginning to flatten and that the state’s focus is switching to getting COVID vaccine shots into Californians’ arms.

Having administered less than half of its supply over the last month, critics have ripped the state’s lagging vaccination pace. Though Ghaly said the state met Governor Gavin Newsom’s goal of reaching 1 million new vaccinations over the weekend, just 1.5 million of the 3.2 million doses shipped by the federal government have been administered.

Asked about the problematic vaccine rollout which has left residents wondering when and how they can get immunized, Ghaly said the state was actively working with counties to provide “clarity” and “consistency.” He claimed the vaccination effort was Newsom’s “highest priority” and that the state is committed to an “all hands on deck” effort in the coming weeks.

Amid the uncertainty from the state, counties such as Los Angeles are taking a more proactive approach in giving out the potentially life-saving vaccine.

On Tuesday, L.A. County officials announced residents over the age of 65 could begin making appointments to receive the vaccine as early as Wednesday. Other counties such as Orange and Sacramento have already started immunizing older residents, while San Francisco officials on Tuesday complained of lowered distributions and said they would run out of supplies in a matter of days.

“Our entire system in San Francisco has received 102,825 doses. There are more than 210,000 people in Tier 1A in San Francisco, all of whom need to receive two doses,” said Mayor London Breed on Twitter. “We simply need more vaccines. I’m optimistic that with the new administration, we’ll see more urgent progress.”

Even with signs pointing to a lull in new infections, California still leads the nation with 3 million confirmed cases and is second in deaths with 34,000, according to Johns Hopkins University data. As for vaccinations, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tracker shows California well behind other major states like Texas, Florida, and New York in terms of shots administered per capita.

— By Nick Cahill, CNS

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