SACRAMENTO — With COVID-19 spreading faster than it ever has in the Western states, worried officials in California issued a desperate plea Friday for residents to avoid travel and hold “virtual” Thanksgiving celebrations.
Troubling signs continue to emerge in the Golden State, as new infections spiked 47% during the first week of November and hospitalizations have climbed 34% over the last two weeks.
Capping off one of the worst weeks in the state’s pandemic fight, California issued a statewide advisory asking residents to self-quarantine and not travel for two weeks if they must leave the state.
In a sober pandemic update, California Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mark Ghaly said there is no doubt the state is experiencing another surge.
“We always hope to have positive news and this isn’t really positive news; these case numbers are surging,” Ghaly bemoaned.
Counties reported more than 6,800 new cases on Friday along with 3,400 total hospitalizations, and the state’s 14-day positivity rate has jumped to 4%. The numbers are raising concerns that hospitals will see a rush of COVID-19 patients that could rival or exceed the state’s highwater mark set last July.
“This is an important, immediate situation,” Ghaly reiterated.
Joining California in the travel advisory are Oregon and Washington state. While not an official ban, the advisory urges residents to avoid “nonessential out-of-state-travel” and limit interactions outside their immediate households.
“As hospitals across the West are stretched to capacity, we must take steps to ensure travelers are not bringing this disease home with them. If you do not need to travel, you shouldn’t,” said Oregon Governor Kate Brown in a statement. “This will be hard, especially with Thanksgiving around the corner. But the best way to keep your family safe is to stay close to home.”
New infections have doubled in Washington state over the last two weeks, while California joined Texas on Thursday as the only states with over 1 million confirmed coronavirus cases. As a whole, the U.S. on Friday smashed its record with more than 150,000 new cases in a single day.
After a short reprieve that allowed most of the state’s largest counties to reopen restaurants, gyms and churches, the ever-virulent virus has California hurtling toward another lockdown.
Earlier this week officials dropped the tier status of nearly a dozen counties in the state’s color-coded COVID-19 system, shutting down most indoor operations in places such as San Diego and Sacramento. Due to widespread increased positivity rates and new cases per 100,000 residents, none of California’s 58 counties improved their tier status.
Newsom and public health officials pinned the blame for the latest surge on Halloween parties and family gatherings, asserting that Californians were letting up their guard as the state’s pandemic fight stretched into its eighth month.
Los Angels County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer called the latest numbers “horrific” and warned against large gatherings of people from different households.
Clearly undermining his own advice — as well as Ferrer’s and other experts — it was revealed on Friday that Newsom and his wife recently attended a birthday dinner with at least 12 guests. According to the report by the San Francisco Chronicle, the outdoor celebration at the renowned French Laundry in Napa included guests from multiple households.
Acknowledging the obvious mixed-messaging, Newsom said he probably should have skipped the large dinner party at one of the nation’s most highly rated restaurants.
“While our family followed the restaurant’s health protocols and took safety precautions, we should have modeled better behavior and not joined the dinner,” Newsom said in a statement.
The explanation comes after the state’s top public health advisers spent nearly an hour asking 40 million people to exercise better judgment than their governor over the holidays.
Ghaly refused to comment on Newsom directly but acknowledged that eating and drinking with people outside your own household are inadvisable and “high-risk” activities.
“The safest gatherings remain those that happen at home with members of your own household,” Ghaly said, parroting advice in place since the pandemic began. “We encourage Californians to gather virtually whenever possible.”
If families decide to gather on Thanksgiving, Ghaly said their gatherings should be limited to just three different households, short in duration and held outside or with the windows open.
Ghaly said that while a statewide shutdown like the one issued at the beginning of the pandemic is not yet imminent, emergency changes could be made to the tiered reopening scheme if needed and counties could drop multiple tiers.
The current spate of new infections is certain to add strain to California’s network of more than 400 hospitals over Thanksgiving, as Ghaly estimated 12% of new cases result in hospitalizations within two weeks.
“When you look at a high number of cases day-over-day and that’s sustained, that’s exactly what we worry about in terms of overwhelming our hospital system,” Ghaly said.
— By Nick Cahill