California is also setting daily death records. On Thursday, the state reported 379 new fatalities, topping its previous high of 293, set the day before.
The number of available beds in intensive care units is plummeting. In the San Joaquin Valley, hospitals ran out over the weekend, resorting to “surge capacity.” In Southern California, a region that includes Los Angeles and San Diego, ICU capacity fell to 0 percent Thursday.
“I want to be very clear: Our hospitals are under siege, and our model shows no end in sight,” Christina Ghaly, director of Los Angeles County’s Department of Health Services, said at a dire news briefing Wednesday.
Because it takes, on average, more than a week for people to get sick enough to be hospitalized, Thursday’s capacity numbers actually reflect case numbers that are roughly 10 days old, when the state was reporting a daily average of 10,000 fewer infections.
“The worst,” Ghaly said, “is still before us.”
The rapid increase in new cases, virus hospitalizations and deaths — which have nearly all doubled — comes at a precarious point in the pandemic. California has already reinstituted tough restrictions meant to curb the coronavirus’s spread, yet it has continued unabated.
There is some good news, however: The vaccine has arrived, and California’s first doses were injected into the arms of health-care workers across the state this week.
But at the same time, the state is still reeling from an influx of new infections tied to Thanksgiving holiday gatherings, while facing the prospect of an additional surge after Christmas.
And the vaccine, experts agree, won’t save people from that.
Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) laid out the state’s “mass fatality” plan Tuesday: Sixty refrigerated storage units, each 53 feet long, to store the bodies that will not fit in morgues, and 5,000 more body bags.
“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Newsom said. “But we’re still in the tunnel. And that means we’re going through perhaps the most intense and urgent moment since the beginning of this pandemic.”
Newsom pleaded with his residents: “We are not at the finish line yet, so please, please, please be mindful.”
In Los Angeles County, the most populous in the country, Ghaly outlined what the public should expect with hospitals stretched so thin. It will mean worse medical care across the board — for the patients with covid-19 and without, those who may have suffered a heart attack or gotten into a car accident, she said. There is only so much space and so many employees to care for everyone in need.
“All of this means,” Ghaly said, “that we will have an increase in deaths in the days and weeks to come.”
The burden will not be shared equally. Even though California leads the country in gross domestic product and is home to a staggering amount of wealth, it also has the highest percentage of people living in poverty, according to the Census Bureau’s supplemental poverty measure. As with other places in the country, entrenched racial and economic inequality is reflected in pandemic data.
Barbara Ferrer, the director of the county’s Department of Public Health, said the rates of infection, hospitalization and death are all rising faster for Los Angeles’s Latino and Black residents than for White residents. The gap between rich and poor is also growing, as people living in poverty continue to be at a higher risk of infection and death.
“Throughout the pandemic, the life-and-death consequences of racism and poverty have played out in devastating ways, and they continue to do so,” Ferrer said, speaking at the same Wednesday news conference as Ghaly.
After the two officials spoke, Denise Whitfield, an emergency-department physician in Los Angeles, took the lectern. She was there to deliver a message that she said has not gotten through to enough people: “This is real, and it’s something that needs to be taken seriously.”
Her shift in the ER last weekend was the first time in her career when she was not sure she could give every patient the best possible care, she said. There were just too many. And if the numbers continue to increase, she said, she fears all of her shifts could go this way.
Looking straight at the camera, she said, “It’s really, really quite frightening to me.”
Jacqueline Dupree contributed to this report.