Faced with COVID-19’s relentless acceleration, Southern California followed shortly on the heels of the San Joaquin Valley in being placed under California’s new stay-at-home orders because of a shortage of hospital beds, health officials announced Saturday.
The order, which affects 27.7 million residents across 23 counties, begins at 12:59 p.m. Sunday and could expand elsewhere in the state as intensive care capacity dwindles. The shortfall of beds critical to keeping COVID-19 patients and others alive triggers Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new mandate for halting the spread — a lockdown across an area just south of Sacramento to the Mexico border.
Both regions’ intensive care unit capacity fell below 15% on Friday night — and ICU capacity is not a static number, as hospitals can increase their available beds to a point should the need arise, including launching field hospitals like officials plan to do at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento on Wednesday.
COVID-19 cases continued to skyrocket as California counties reported a new single-day record of 22,491 total cases Friday.
The state also recorded its highest seven-day case average of 17,819 and tallied 208 deaths, the most in one day since the end of July.
An unprecedented, miserable stretch of the pandemic is showing no signs of slowing down as gatherings over the Thanksgiving holiday begin to show up in case counts.
There have now been 19,797 COVID-related deaths in California and 1,308,736 cases.
The restrictions in the San Joaquin Valley — Calaveras, Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Mariposa, Merced, San Benito, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Tulare, Tuolumne counties — bar all on-site restaurant dining and closes hair and nail salons, movie theaters and many other businesses, as well as museums and playgrounds.
The Southern California region, comprised of Imperial, Inyo, Los Angeles, Mono, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, was officially included in the orders Saturday afternoon, shortly after the San Joaquin Valley region was.
Los Angeles has long been a major hub of infectious activity since the coronavirus started spreading across the nation early in 2020, and now it and other major Southern California cities will face the tightest economic restrictions yet.
The new order divides the state into five regions and uses ICU capacity as the trigger for closures. Newsom also says people may not congregate with anyone outside their household and must always wear masks when they go outside. It is the most restrictive order since he imposed the country’s first statewide stay-at-home rule in March.
As of Saturday, the 11-county Southern California region had only 12.5% of its ICU beds available, the California Department of Public Health reported. The figure was 14.1% for the San Joaquin Valley region as of Saturday morning — an area composed of a dozen counties in the agricultural Central Valley and rural areas of the Sierra Nevada — but had dropped to just 8.6% by Saturday afternoon.
The San Joaquin Valley region’s abysmal ICU capacity is the lowest in the state. Saturday’s update, however, brought some good news to the Northern California region, which on Friday had shown an ICU capacity of 18.6%, but which now reflects the highest capacity in the state with 24.1% of ICU beds open.
The other two regions — Greater Sacramento and San Francisco Bay Area — both remained around 21%.
On Friday, some areas in Northern California didn’t wait for the crisis to reach the 15% threshold.
Five San Francisco Bay Area counties, followed by Yolo County, imposed their own stay-at-home orders that will take effect Sunday. The health director for Yuba and Sutter counties recommended residents stay home and restaurants close.
“We don’t think we can wait for the state’s new restrictions to go into effect. … This is an emergency,” Contra Costa Health Officer Chris Farnitano said.
The new shutdowns were a gut-wrenching move for small businesses that have struggled to survive over nearly a year in which they were repeatedly ordered to close, then allowed to reopen but with complex safety precautions.
Michelle Saunders James was in tears Friday at the thought of closing down her Oakland nail salon just five weeks after reopening it.
“We wear (face) shields. We take temperatures. We do everything we are told to do so everyone feels safe, including our staff and team,” she told KGO-TV. “So I don’t understand why it’s not enough and I’m terribly sad and afraid.”
Under Newsom’s order, retail stores and shopping centers can operate with just 20% customer capacity.
Critics say the broad statewide order unfairly lumps too many disparate counties together into regions.
The approach “places our ability to reopen with 10 other counties including Los Angeles County which has absolutely failed to control the coronavirus and Mono County whose most populous city is 344 miles away,” said Fred M. Whitaker, chairman of the Republican Party of Orange County.
The explosive rise in COVID-19 infections that began in October is being blamed largely on people ignoring safety measures and socializing with others.
Statewide, 9,065 Californians were hospitalized with a confirmed case as of Thursday — an all-time high and nearly double the number seen two weeks ago.
“The bottom line is if we don’t act now, our hospital system will be overwhelmed,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Thursday. “If we don’t act now, we’ll continue to see a death rate climb, more lives lost.”
The state has also seen more than 100 confirmed COVID-19 fatalities on each of the last four days. That hasn’t happened since early September.
Should the current rate of deaths continue, the total death toll would surpass 20,000 by early next week.
In the San Joaquin Valley, Fresno County had just 10 of its 150 ICU beds available. Health officials described a grim picture with hospitals struggling to stay staffed because of coronavirus infections and exposures. One hospital is holding ICU patients in the emergency department until beds open up, Emergency Medical Services Director Daniel Lynch said Friday.
The county has requested help from the state with staffing for a couple of weeks. But so far only one or two additional workers have shown up at three local hospitals as the whole state struggles with staffing.
At Kaweah Delta medical center in Visalia, in Tulare County, there were 18 ICU beds available Friday but only the staff to handle four additional patients, said Keri Noeske, the chief nursing officer. Some 125 employees are out sick or quarantined because of COVID-19.
Newsom has expressed hope that this new shutdown would be the final time such measures prove necessary, particularly with the state expecting to receive its initial shipment of COVID-19 vaccines in a matter of weeks.
In the meantime, experts and officials urge residents to take steps to keep themselves and their loved ones from being infected — including wearing masks in public, regularly washing their hands and staying home as much as possible; as well as keeping physical distance from, and avoiding gatherings with, those they do not live with.
“We will get through this. This is the final surge,” Newsom said. “We have a light at the end of the tunnel with these vaccines, but we need to take seriously this moment.”
The Fresno Bee, the Associated Press, the Mercury News of San Jose and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this story.
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