As its deadliest month of the COVID-19 pandemic comes to a close, record numbers of Californians continue to perish from the virus, even as new infections appear to be leveling off. However, the still unknown effects of holiday gatherings and the discovery of a new mutant, more contagious strain of the coronavirus in the state throw new variables into the equation.
On Wednesday, county health departments reported a record 439 new fatalities across California — the equivalent to a death about every three minutes — as the state’s cumulative death toll surpassed its latest morbid milestone, 25,000 victims of the virus, and grew to 25,400 by the end of the day, according to data compiled by this news organization. More than 6,000 Californians have died since the beginning of December, the state’s deadliest month of the pandemic, already 63% more fatalities than its worst previous month, August.
The daily death toll continues to grow, but California’s case count has plateaued since Christmas. After counties combined to report 31,117 new cases Wednesday, the daily average dipped to about 36,200 per day over the past week, nearly 20% lower than a week ago. About 11.8% of tests have come back positive in the past week, after the positivity rate had climbed as high as 13.3% prior to Christmas.
This week, California became the first state with 20,000 of its residents hospitalized with COVID-19 at one time. On Tuesday, the total active hospitalized cases grew to 20,612, including 4,389 intensive-care patients, both record highs for the state. But the flow of new patients has slowed, growing by only 11.7% in the past week, compared to 23.5% the week before and 35.7% two weeks ago.
In Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley, however, hospitals have been in surge capacity for nearly two straight weeks and, once again, accounted for a large share of the record-breaking statewide death toll. In Los Angeles County, where health officials continue to sort through a holiday backlog, the cumulative death toll surpassed 10,000 and shattered a daily record for the second straight day with 274 newly reported fatalities. More people have died from COVID-19 in Los Angeles County since Christmas than in any individual Bay Area county throughout the entirety of the pandemic.
Dr. Barbara Ferrer, the Los Angeles County public health director, said to expect worse to come.
“Unfortunately, given the amount of travel and holiday intermingling that may be happening over this winter holiday, we all need to be prepared for another surge that will start with even higher case numbers in January,” Ferrer said in a statement released Wednesday.
Additionally, the first case involving a mutated and more contagious strain of the virus appeared Wednesday at a lab in San Diego. Health officials have speculated it has already spread elsewhere undetected.
In the Bay Area, ICU capacity dropped to its lowest point of the pandemic but 7.5% of staffed and licensed beds remained available, according to the latest figures from the state. The Greater Sacramento and Northern California regions were both above the state-mandated 15% threshold for ICU capacity, at 17.4% and 31.5%, respectively.
After Los Angeles, two more Southern California counties reported the next-most new fatalities: San Diego County, with 37, and Orange County, with 27. In the San Joaquin Valley, Stanislaus County reported 12 deaths, Tulare County reported 10 and Kern County added six.
Across the entire Bay Area, there were 13 newly reported fatalities Wednesday, led by eight in Contra Costa County. San Francisco and Sonoma each reported two, and Napa County added one to its death count.
As a region, the Bay Area has reported a quarter of the fatalities, per-capita, as Southern California over the past week. About 14 people for every 1 million residents in the Bay Area died over the past seven days — half the rate of any other region in the state — compared to more than 58 per 1 million in Southern California. Last week, the San Joaquin Valley reached an even higher peak — about 67 per million — but since has brought its rate down to about 34 deaths per 1 million in the past week.
Of the 25,400 deaths to date in California, just over 2,500 have come in the Bay Area, about 10% of the total, or about half of its proportion of the statewide population. Los Angeles County, on the other hand, has accounted for approximately 40% of total deaths in California, despite making up about 25% of the state’s population.
At just below 50 daily cases for every 100,000 residents, the Bay Area also has a lower per-capita infection rate than any region in the state but Northern California over the past week. At about 113 per 100,000, the rate in Southern California would rank higher than any other state in the country, according to analysis of New York Times data; the Bay Area would check in around 30th.
As a whole, California already ranks atop the hot spot leaderboard with a per-capita infection rate of about 92 per 100,000 over the past week, more than 10% higher than the next-closest state, Tennessee, according to the Times’ data.
Nationally, average daily cases have decreased by about 14% in the past week, to 183,000 per day, or a per-capita rate of about 55/100K, but the U.S. on Wednesday joined California in recording its most fatalities of the pandemic. The national death toll grew by more than 3,800 Wednesday to 342,000, according to the Times, breaking the previous daily death record set the day before. It was the 15th time since the beginning of December that the U.S. recorded more fatalities from COVID-19 than occurred in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.