California is approaching 1 million coronavirus cases at a crucial moment in the pandemic.

After months of declining infections amid stricter reopening rules, the virus is again spreading, with Los Angeles County and Silicon Valley seeing new surges that are sparking alarm among health officials.

The concerns are heightened by the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. After months of restrictions, officials fear many people will make exceptions, attending gatherings that will further increase infections as California begins the holiday season.

China showed just how destructive and deadly large family meals can be in a pandemic, when celebrations for the Lunar New Year – that country’s version of Thanksgiving and Christmas – and related cross-country travel ended up seeding the highly contagious virus worldwide, fueling the worst global pandemic in more than a century.

The most recent spike has been attributed in part to social gatherings – including victory celebrations related to the Lakers and Dodgers. There are also concerns that the virus might have been spread more through celebrations over Joe Biden’s presidential win.

But Thanksgiving brings a new level of peril.

The best way to ensure that family and friends stay safe is to limit celebrations to members of your household only, experts say. And that goes for Christmas and other winter holidays too.

“Stop. Don’t do either. Really,” said Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist and infectious diseases expert at the University of California, San Francisco. That includes saying no to flying home for the holidays, Rutherford said. “The basic advice is: Stay within your pods. Stay within your bubbles. Stay within your household.”

“If you listen to the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the main drivers nationwide – and I wouldn’t think that’s any different for California – are small gatherings,” Rutherford said. “That’s something that I think people are really quite concerned about in my world, especially if we’re starting to surge right now.”

California is entering another coronavirus wave, as much of the rest of the country has done. Health officials in Los Angeles County and Santa Clara County, Northern California’s most populous, said Monday it’s now clear they’ve entered a new surge, something that cannot be explained away by data reporting delays or a random bad couple of days.

On Monday night, California’s COVID-19 death tally surpassed 18,000, according to the Los Angeles Times’ California coronavirus tracker. That death toll is six times worse than the one estimated for the great 1906 earthquake that destroyed much of San Francisco. More than 982,000 coronavirus infections have been diagnosed in California.

Halloween parties may already be to blame for some of the spike in coronavirus infections. Weekly cases in California have nearly doubled over the past month; four weeks ago, more than 20,000 cases were reported in a week statewide, but in the last week, nearly 40,000 cases were reported for the seven-day period that ended Sunday, according to a Times analysis.

Still, California remains in better shape than other parts of the nation, a likely result of better-than-average mask use and the state’s slower reopening of the economy. The Golden State has the 38th highest per capita cumulative coronavirus case rate among the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, with about 2,500 cases per 100,000 residents. By contrast, Wisconsin and Iowa have roughly double California’s case rate, and North Dakota has triple.

But a version of the nightmare scenarios seen in Europe and the U.S. Midwest, where hospitals are overwhelmed, could easily happen in California if the state’s residents collectively shrug at the pandemic and dive into large communal Thanksgiving feasts, with family and friends flying from around the country and spending half a day together indoors, giving hugs and taking off their masks.

Nationwide, 238,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19, and more than 134,000 additional deaths are currently forecast to occur through the end of President Donald Trump’s term on Jan. 20, including about 10,000 in California, according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Harder-hit places “serve as a reminder that that can easily be our reality as well,” said Barbara Ferrer, the L.A. County director of public health. “When cases surged in New York City, and we all said, ‘Oh, you know, that’s not going to happen here.’ And then in July, we had an equally troubling surge in cases. It did happen here.”

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