Faced with a third COVID-19 wave just as we enter the holiday season, it would be fair for Californians to pose some existential questions.
Why does this virus seem to be targeting us yet again? Why have we struggled to control it? Where did we go wrong?
The simple answer is: We actually do know how to fight the virus. We just got tired of doing it.
This third coronavirus wave is particularly troubling because “we never got back down” to a low baseline number of cases, said Dr. Sara Cody, the Santa Clara County health officer and a key architect of the nation’s first regional stay-at-home order.
Even worse, this surge is happening during the traditional cold-and-flu season, exacerbated because people tend to stay indoors, where it’s easier to pass along germs.
“We’re also facing this surge on the eve of what has traditionally been the greatest travel day of the year — and that’s the day before Thanksgiving,” Cody said.
Moreover, California won’t be able to count on help from other parts of the country. “Everyone is experiencing a surge at the same time,” Cody said.
Many unknowns remain. In general, deaths from COVID-19 have fallen since the spring as the infections hit a younger, healthier demographic and hospitals get better at treatments. Some workplaces and institutions like nursing homes have gotten better at protection measures. But there are still concerns about hospitals filling up in the coming weeks if California cannot begin again to flatten the curve.
And there is also a psychological dimension to the third wave that is particularly devastating. Many hoped for a reprieve from the isolation, uncertainty and economic damage from coronavirus by now, a chance to reconnect with family and friends, to do some in-person Christmas shopping and feel like better times are ahead. The news of successful vaccines is a boost. But many enter the holiday season as anxious as ever.
Even in San Francisco, which has seen a relatively low number of deaths from COVID-19, “we are seeing an explosion of new cases throughout the city,” warned Dr. Grant Colfax, the director of public health.
“This rate of rise is higher than ever before,” Colfax said, and warned that it’s possible that the city could run out of hospital bed and intensive care unit capacity.
“The choices we ... make in the next two weeks will determine the remainder of this holiday season,” Colfax said, urging people to cancel travel plans and stay home for Thanksgiving. “We have the ability to choose if we beat back the third surge, or if we fall victim to the surge, like we are seeing unfortunately in other parts of the country.”
California was once a shining example of how a state can marshal itself to prevent this pandemic from becoming a full blown catastrophe. With officials acting relatively early to impose a stay-at-home order, hospitals across the Golden State never became as overwhelmed as those in New York, which endured a wrenching death toll double that of California.
The stay-at-home orders, however, devastated the economy, and that brought pressure to reopen from people desperate the save their businesses from ruin.
Attitudes also changed as the pandemic dragged on. California shows how a collective shrug, a lack of discipline and a yearning to quickly “get back to normal” can also result in a new season of death.
Loosened rules on restaurants and bars and a burst of social activity in the waning weeks of spring and the first weeks of summer resulted in California’s deadliest season of the pandemic, sabotaging efforts to reopen schools in time for fall.
Now, there’s fear that California is headed on that same path again, with the lure of Thanksgiving, Christmas and other winter holidays irresistible to some.
Mass fatigue and even resentment of the coronavirus are causing some people to defiantly hold dinner parties without masks and plan for holiday feasts.
The lure of social gatherings is strong: Gov. Gavin Newsom recently apologized for attending a birthday dinner for a friend at an exclusive Napa Valley restaurant.
And health officials are urging people to not think they can use testing to give themselves a free pass to hold parties without needing face masks or social distancing. Doing so would be making the same mistake the Trump administration did when its testing strategy failed to protect President Donald Trump from getting infected and allowed a superspreading incident at a Rose Garden ceremony announcing his nominee to the Supreme Court.
Unless they’re canceled or dramatically scaled back, traditional social gatherings held amid the world’s worst pandemic in a century will lead to a season of heartbreak, overwhelmed hospitals and busy morgues as the weeks tick closer to Christmas.
Health officials are tracking this pattern across California, and it’s for that reason they’re terrified of what may hit the state if nothing is done to shift from this trajectory.
Statewide, the current acceleration in cases is the fastest on record, with cases in the first week of November climbing by 51%, California’s fastest increase yet, which previously had been a 39% jump on the last week of spring, Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Monday.
It’s “simply without precedent in California’s pandemic history,” Newsom said.
In the late spring, scientists now believe, the rapid reopening of businesses that began in May and stories crowing about how California survived the pandemic better than the East Coast seemed to telegraph to people that, after two months of following a strict stay-at-home order, it was OK to loosen up.
But birthday parties and celebrations soon became superspreader events.
There was the story about a truck driver who, after months of diligently isolating, finally went to a barbecue party. More than 10 people who attended the party ended up getting infected, and the truck driver, Tommy Macias, 51, died on the second day of summer.
Then there was the story, later in the summer, of a couple that traveled from California to Maine to get married in the small town of Millinocket. There were just 55 attendees at the wedding reception, but, over the next few weeks, 176 people would get infected, including a parent of a person who attended the wedding – who also worked at a long-term care facility. More than half of the facility’s residents were infected, and six of them ultimately died of COVID-19.
In Los Angeles County, Barbara Ferrer, the director of public health, has meticulously tracked key moments that preceded surges in coronavirus infections.