California reports record virus death count as cases spiral

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California reported more than 50,000 new coronavirus cases and 293 deaths, setting new records as hospitals struggled to keep up with the surge

Southern California and the state’s Central Valley — regions that together include 23 counties and most of the state’s nearly 40 million residents — had exhausted their regular supply of intensive care beds and many hospitals were tapping into their “surge” capacity.

Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the transmission of the virus is rampant and noted two people are dying every hour in the county.

“We’re experiencing an explosive and very deadly surge,” Ferrer said.

LA County Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly said “hospitals are under siege and our models show no end in sight” She characterized the facilities as “strained and under immense stress.”

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California is averaging more than 35,000 new cases a day. Health officials estimate 12% of them — 4,200 — end up in hospitals.

The record tally of cases reported Wednesday included 12,630 older cases that were added because of a new data collection method, according to the state Department of Public Health. But even without those, the daily total was the most during the pandemic.

Hospitalizations are now are nearly 15,000, and California now is averaging 177 deaths per day and has a total of 21,481.

The state has been grappling with soaring cases and hospitalizations since October. Most of the state’s residents are under stay-at-home orders because of dwindling intensive care unit capacity where they live.

The orders closes many types of businesses, including hair and nail salons and movie theaters, and severely limit business operations for retailers. There also is an overnight curfew.

On Wednesday, state health officials announced the San Francisco Bay Area would join three of the state’s five regions already under state-mandated shutdowns as ICU available beds dropped below 15%. Many of the Bay Area counties had already applied the state’s order as a precaution and those that hadn’t must now do so on Thursday.

Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, testing director for Santa Clara County, the Bay Area’s most populous, said infections are topping 1,000 per day, compared with 300 in July.

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Hospitals are filling up so fast in California that officials are rolling out mobile field facilities and scrambling to hire doctors and nurses. The state is distributing 5,000 body bags mostly to the hard-hit Los Angeles and San Diego areas and has 60 refrigerated trailers standing by as makeshift morgues in anticipation of more deaths.

Jeremy Zoch, chief executive at Providence St. Joseph Hospital of Orange, said nurses, respiratory therapists and housekeepers are taking extra shifts to keep up with rising cases. Registry and traveling nurses have come in to help, and officials are talking to a nearby children’s hospital about using additional space to care for patients, he said.

“It has challenged us so every single one of our units that we have available to us we’ve been redesigning them and utilizing them to care for COVID patients,” Zoch said at a news conference marking the hospital’s first coronavirus vaccinations. “It is really challenging us on the capacity front. Our ICUs are very close to full.”

This week, hospitals throughout the state began administering the first Pfizer vaccines to healthcare workers.

The Bay Area is the fourth region in California to come under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order, joining the regions of greater Sacramento, the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. The Northern California region, which includes Humboldt, Lake and Mendocino counties, is not affected for now.

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Taxin reported from Orange County. Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker and Janie Har in San Francisco and Don Thompson in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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