Essential California: Grim preparations and a scramble for medical staff

A man in front of a freezer container
Brian Elias, chief of coroner investigations for L.A. County, in front of donated freezer containers behind his office in October. Elias says the containers have increased storage capacity from around 500 bodies to nearly 3,000.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, Dec. 16, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom once again sounded notes of hope and alarm as he addressed Californians on Tuesday morning.

Yes, there is light at the end of the tunnel, with California standing to receive at least 1 million more doses of COVID-19 vaccines by the end of the month. “But we’re still in the tunnel, going through the most challenging and difficult surge we’ve experienced since the beginning of this pandemic,” Newsom reminded Californians.

With case numbers, hospitalizations and now deaths continuing their brutal surge, the state is scrambling to find enough nurses, doctors and other medical staff to meet the unrelenting demand, as my colleague Melody Gutierrez reports.


[Read the story: “California health officials scramble to staff medical facilities amid COVID-19 surge” in the Los Angeles Times]

To address the shortage, Newsom said Tuesday that California is “looking overseas” for additional staffing because other states are “in a similar predicament” to California and can’t spare their own healthcare workers.

As state officials rush to address the hospital staff shortages, they are also preparing to handle an even greater loss of life. On Tuesday, Newsom described some of the grim preparations underway to handle the surge in deaths to come.

According to the governor, the state has 60 53-foot refrigerated storage units on standby in various counties and at various hospitals, ready to receive bodies if necessary. The state has also ordered 5,000 additional body bags, which are being distributed in Los Angeles, San Diego and Inyo counties. Over the last week, an average of 164 Californians died from COVID-19 every day, roughly quadruple the level seen a month ago.

The view from Los Angeles County:

“Our reality is frightening at the moment,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said. The county is so slammed by COVID-19 patients that for certain periods of time on Sunday, 81% of hospitals that received patients coming from 911 calls were forced to temporarily divert some ambulance patients elsewhere.


[Read the story: “L.A. County has fewer than 100 ICU beds available, and the worst is yet to come, officials say” in the Los Angeles Times]

COVID-19 hospitalizations in the county are now six times higher than they were in mid-October. County public health officials say they are bracing for hospitalizations to further worsen, as more people who became infected over Thanksgiving get so sick they need to be admitted. As of Tuesday afternoon, available ICU capacity across Southern California had dropped to 1.7%.

A slide from a county presentation
This timetable shows how Thanksgiving virus transmission is expected to play out over the course of many weeks.
(Los Angeles County Department of Public Health)

The county on Tuesday recorded its highest number of daily deaths since the summer surge — a number that will almost certainly rise. As my colleagues have reported, the boom in deaths resulting from virus transmission over Thanksgiving won’t become apparent until January; that projection is based on how past waves of the virus have behaved.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

How the COVID-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer compare head to head: Science and medicine editor Karen Kaplan explains everything you want to know. Los Angeles Times


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Kelly Gonez, first in her family to attend college, is the new L.A. school board president: The 32-year-old’s ascent represents a generational change in the nation’s second-largest school system and potentially a shift toward more influence for backers of charter schools. Los Angeles Times

What an unscientific “tamale poll” says about coronavirus, Christmas and large gatherings: Tamaleros say they aren’t selling the same number as they did in years past, possibly meaning fewer family gatherings this year. Los Angeles Times

Two people making tamales in a commercial kitchen
By this time in a normal year, Amalia’s Restaurant owner Milbet Del Cid, right, would have orders for 1,500 tamales at her Guatemalan eatery. But this year she has received orders for only about 100 tamales since Thanksgiving. “I’ve been here thinking: Lord, help … me stay strong. Help us,” she said.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Rough day for L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti: President-elect Joe Biden is expected to pick former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg as his transportation chief — a gig Garcetti was rumored to be in the running for. Associated Press

LAPD officers who opened fire outside Trader Joe’s won’t be charged in a store manager’s death: Melyda Corado, 27, died from a single bullet wound in July 2018, as two police officers exchanged gunfire with a man who fled into the Silver Lake store after a car chase. Los Angeles Times


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Advocates warn that Republicans’ proposed COVID liability shield could undo California worker protections: Advocates say frontline California workers could lose protections if the effort to limit corporate liability is included in a new stimulus package. The push by Senate Republicans to hold private businesses immune from COVID lawsuits has been among the major sticking points preventing Congress from passing another pandemic aid package. Los Angeles Times

California Reps. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) and Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) are raking in supersize fundraising hauls. Only members of House leadership and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) raised more than either in their personal accounts.Sacramento Bee


California regulators issued a $59-million fine to Uber and threatened to suspend the company’s operating license in a Monday ruling. At issue: the company’s ongoing refusal to hand over detailed sexual assault data. Los Angeles Times


We’d love to hear from some of our Essential California readers about the moments that shaped their year. Tell us about them here. We’ll share some of the responses before the end of the year.

After becoming obsessed with the Donner Party, they spent years researching and exploring the Sierra on foot to try to pinpoint the final 90-mile route the survivors used. Now, those backcountry athletes are setting out on snowshoes to retrace the footsteps of the pioneers who braved the worst blizzard in a century to escape over the top of what’s now called Donner Pass. Associated Press


Anthony Veasna So — a queer, Cambodian American writer on the cusp of great success — died suddenly last week at age 28. A far-flung but tightknit literary community is in shock and mourning over the San Francisco writer’s death, and what might have been. Los Angeles Times

[Read “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” a particularly great short story by Veasna So published in the New Yorker]

The best Bay Area food pop-ups of 2020, including a weekly bread subscription service and a modern take on Vietnamese home cooking. San Francisco Chronicle

A poem to start your Wednesday: “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost.

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Los Angeles: sunny, 73. San Diego: sunny, 70. San Francisco: cloudy, 57. San Jose: cloudy, 63. Fresno: partly sunny, 57. Sacramento: more clouds, 55. More weather is here.



Today’s California memory comes from Emily Chen:

In 1981, my father’s family founded the Chinese-language newspaper International Daily News in Monterey Park, fulfilling my grandfather’s vow from a generation prior to establish a free press. Like many immigrant businesses, it was a family affair, and us kids hung around underfoot while our parents worked 24/7. I played typist on manual Chinese typewriters and watched Associated Press stories magically appear out of the wire machine, to be translated. Defying orders, I dashed under whizzing full-color printing presses and played hide-and-seek with my cousin among stacked two-ton newsprint rolls, which would have crushed us had one come loose.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.