LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California’s COVID-19 surge is showing signs of leveling off after besieging hospitals, emergency services and morgues for weeks, the state’s top health official said on Tuesday, as medical staffing continued to buckle under the strain.
The number of newly hospitalized coronavirus patients statewide has declined to 2,500 admissions every 24 hours over the past two days, down from 3,500 in previous days, California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr Mark Ghaly said in an online briefing with reporters.
Ghaly called it “the biggest signal to me that things are beginning to flatten and potentially improve.”
He cited several other promising trends, including a slowdown in confirmed daily case numbers – 36,487 reported Tuesday, down from a weekly average of 42,000 cases a day – and a leveling off in the rate of diagnostic tests coming back positive. Moreover, a 5% uptick in COVID patients in hospitals over the past 14 days marked the lowest rate of increase in more than two months, Ghaly said.
But he acknowledged that health officials were “absolutely” worried about the spread of a more infectious variant of the coronavirus that emerged in Britain and has shown up in the United States and other countries.
California has confirmed 38 cases of the so-called UK variant since state medical authorities first detected it in San Diego County on Dec. 30.
“Rates of transmission are going to be more challenging to contain if we see more widespread proliferation,” Ghaly said.
The threat of a more contagious form of the virus makes swifter immunizations all the more critical, he said.
A plateau in new infections, if sustained, will be welcome relief to California’s healthcare professionals, ambulance teams and funeral workers overwhelmed by a surge that began in November.
The stress has led to an exodus of hospital staff at Providence St. Mary Medical Center in Apple Valley, California, where coronavirus patients on stretchers lined the corridors on Tuesday and every available intensive care unit bed was filled.
‘IT’S JUST TOO MUCH’
Nurses, doctors, laboratory staff and technicians have been retiring, quitting or going on stress leave in record numbers, said Mendy Hickey, executive director of acute care services.
“It’s just too much for them anymore. It’s just really taking a toll on people,” Hickey said. “We’ve canceled surgeries, so we have O.R. staff nurses up here helping run codes. We have anesthesia technicians helping us do chest compressions in rooms.”
The strain is compounded by the intense nature of the swollen case load.
“It seems like they’re sicker than they’ve ever been before. We have more patients on ventilators than we’ve ever had at this hospital before in its history,” Hickey said.
Kari McGuire, supervisor of palliative care, said she had never seen so much death.
“We’re used to being able to hug families, we’re used to being able to have that one-on-one interaction with patients, and so much is now done over the phone,” McGuire said. “And with the increase of deaths, it’s made our job in palliative care much more difficult.”
California, the nation’s most populous state, with some 40 million residents, has emerged as a leading U.S. epicenter of the pandemic despite re-imposing some of the most stringent restrictions on social gatherings and business activity.
COVID-related deaths, considered a “lagging indicator” in the pandemic’s trajectory, have mounted steadily in California, crossing the grim milestone of 30,000 to date as of Tuesday.
Ghaly said the latest wave of cases, while apparently less severe than anticipated, has yet to peak because those infected over the year-end holidays will ultimately wind up hospitalized, making it vital for Californians to stay vigilant until vaccines become widely available.
“If you give COVID an inch it will take a mile,” he said.
Sweeping stay-at-home orders were re-instituted last month as spiraling infections drove ICUs to the limits of their capacity, especially in and around Los Angeles, home to about half the state’s population.
The San Francisco Bay area was in better shape, but even there the situation remained dire enough that business for cemeteries and mortuaries has soared.
“It’s really taxing our systems,” said Robert Gordon, president of the Cypress Lawn Cemetery Association in Colma, near San Francisco, which has seen a four-fold increase in demand for services in January over a typical month last year.
“Today we had 10 embalmings, and eight of them were COVID. So it’s myself and then two other coworkers I have back there, and it’s just nonstop,” said Alexandra Petrini, preparation room manager for the embalming department at Cypress Lawn.
“We’re all just trying to navigate through this the best we know how,” she said.
(Reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles. Additional reporting by Nathan Frandino in Colma, Rollo Ross in Apple Valley and Daniel Trotta in Escondido, California; Editing by Gerry Doyle, Robert Birsel)