California COVID struggles

Bikers, against a backdrop of the Queen Mary, make their way along a pedestrian and beach bike path on the first day that Long Beach reopened it.

LOS ANGELES – California hasn’t seen the huge death toll from the coronavirus like New York and other hot spots, but the state is still struggling with a growing number of fatalities and confirmed cases.

COVID-19 deaths in California remain at a stubborn plateau. Mirroring a trend seen nationally, California has not seen a dramatic and sustained decline in deaths over the past month, a Los Angeles Times analysis found. During the seven-day period that ended Sunday, 503 people in California died from the virus – the second-highest weekly death toll in the course of the pandemic and a 1.6% increase from the previous week’s toll.

The trends have some health officials expressing caution about widely reopening communities – especially those in urban areas hard hit by the virus – amid concerns about a wave of new cases.

Silicon Valley’s health officer, Dr. Sara Cody, announced Tuesday that Santa Clara County has no immediate plans to weaken its strict stay-at-home order, saying she couldn’t take that step without increasing the risk to public safety.

“We’re not there yet,” Cody told the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. “The conditions really haven’t changed in our county. ... We don’t suddenly have a vaccine. We have exactly the same conditions we had in March. If we did ease up, we would see a brisk return of cases, of hospitalizations, and a brisk return of deaths, to be quite blunt.”

At the same time, many rural counties with fewer cases are pushing to reopen. The state said Tuesday that seven counties – mostly rural – have met conditions for additional businesses to resume operations: Amador, Butte, El Dorado, Lassen, Nevada, Placer and Shasta.

Talks are underway with 23 other counties on whether they can expand reopenings, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday, but he noted that conditions are still too serious in Los Angeles and San Francisco counties to modify the guidelines for resuming business.

The Times asked University of California, San Francisco epidemiologist and infectious disease expert Dr. George Rutherford, a former epidemic intelligence service officer with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about why the plateau persists.

“As long as it’s going up, it has not ended. It’s got to come down for it to end,” he said.

Rutherford offered two reasons why the disease is persisting: a certain percentage of people are still going out, and people are getting fed up with staying at home.

A significant part of the population has chosen not to stay home or has been unable to do so because they’re essential workers manning supermarkets, meat processing plants, prisons and nursing homes.

A CDC study estimated that around April 1, about two weeks into a regional stay-at-home order, nearly 50% of residents in five San Francisco Bay Area counties were still leaving home, down from 80% in late February.

“That’s still 50%,” Rutherford said, adding that people can still get infected even if they limit their trips outside the home to buy a loaf of bread at the supermarket.

Essential workers who must leave home – people working in the food industry, making deliveries and staffing medical facilities – are among those contracting the coronavirus.

A UC San Francisco study of thousands of residents and workers in the city’s Mission District found that 57% of those tested must leave their homes for work. But of the people who tested positive for the coronavirus, those who had to leave home to work accounted for 90% of the positive cases. Nearly 89% of those who tested positive earn less than $50,000 a year, and most live in households with three or more people.

While Latinos made up 44% of those tested, they accounted for more than 99% of the positive COVID-19 cases.

Many residents and workers in the Mission District work in essential services such as agriculture, construction, manufacturing, restaurants, grocery stores and janitorial and domestic services, the university said.

Staying home, the researchers said, seemed to make a difference.

Large outbreaks have been reported at workplaces needed to keep essential businesses running, with dozens infected at a Safeway distribution center and at least one fatality in the center east of the Bay Area in Tracy, Calif. Farther south in the Central Valley, at least 138 workers at a meat packing plant in Hanford have tested positive for the virus.

L.A. County residents who live in areas with high poverty rates have nearly four times as many COVID-19 deaths – 29 deaths per 100,000 people, compared with eight per 100,000 people in communities with low poverty rates, the county said last week.

Black and Latino Californians ages 18 to 64 are dying more frequently than their white and Asian counterparts relative to their share of the population, a Los Angeles Times analysis of state health department data conducted in late April found.

Rutherford said essential workers need to be considered, and he urged government officials to plan the reopening carefully.

“Make no mistake ... the more the economy opens up, the more people are going to die,” he added. “You have to be really careful to minimize that number and make sure it’s not on the backs of all the poor people who are doing the front-line jobs who are going to get the most exposed.”

Also a factor: People are getting fed up with the stay-at-home order and have been determined to enjoy the nice weather.

It’s a reason why disease forecasters are increasingly expecting the death toll to get worse than what was thought just a week ago. “They realized people weren’t really sheltering in place anymore and all the other states let their foot off the brakes,” Rutherford said.

Officials have expressed alarm at large crowds seen in San Francisco’s Mission Dolores Park, Orange County beaches and in the downtown L.A. flower district.

There has been a steep rise in coronavirus cases reported in Orange County following the large crowds on the beaches on April 25-26.

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