For months, California did many of the right things to avoid a catastrophic surge from the pandemic. But by the time Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Dec. 15 that 5,000 body bags were being distributed, it was clear that the nation’s most populous state had entered a new phase of the COVID-19 crisis.
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It has routinely set new marks for infections and deaths, and began the new year reporting a record 585 deaths in a single day.
Experts say a variety of factors combined to wipe out the past efforts, which for much of the year held the virus to manageable levels. Cramped housing, travel and Thanksgiving gatherings contributed to the spread, along with the public’s fatigue amid regulations that closed many schools and businesses and encouraged — or required — an isolated lifestyle.
Another factor could be a more contagious variant of the virus detected in Southern California, although it’s not clear yet how widespread that may be.
California’s woes have helped fuel the year-end U.S. infection spike and added urgency to the attempts to beat back the scourge that has killed more than 340,000 Americans. Even with vaccines becoming available, cases are almost certain to continue growing, and yet another surge is expected in the weeks after Christmas and New Year’s.
On Friday, the number of confirmed U.S. coronavirus cases surpassed 20 million, nearly twice as many as the No. 2 country, India, and nearly one-quarter of the more than 83 million cases globally, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
In California, the southern half of the state has seen the worst effects, from the agricultural San Joaquin Valley to the Mexico border. Hospitals are swamped with patients, and intensive care units have no more beds for COVID-19 patients. Makeshift wards are being set up in tents, arenas, classrooms and conference rooms. Some hospitals are having difficulty keeping up with the demand for oxygen.
Hospitalizations statewide have gone up more than eightfold in two months and nearly tenfold in Los Angeles County. On Thursday, the total number of California deaths surpassed 25,000, joining only New York and Texas at that milestone.
“Most heartbreaking is that if we had done a better job of reducing transmission of the virus, many of these deaths would not have happened,” said Barbara Ferrer, the county’s public health director, who has pleaded with people not to get together and worsen the spread.
Crowded houses and apartments are often cited as a source of spread, particularly in Los Angeles, which has some of the densest neighborhoods in the U.S. Households in and around LA often have several generations — or multiple families — living under one roof. Those tend to be lower-income areas where residents work essential jobs that can expose them to the virus at work or while commuting.
The socioeconomic situation in LA County is “like the kindling,” said Paula Cannon, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Southern California. “And now we got to the stage where there was enough COVID out in the community that it lit the fire.”
Home to a quarter of the state’s 40 million residents, LA County has had 40% of the state’s deaths and a third of its 2.3 million cases. The virus has hit Latino and Black communities harder.
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