Coronavirus cases across California barreled toward 10,000 Wednesday — with the death toll topping 200 — as officials desperately tried to keep unprecedented social distancing orders enforced while also trying to get more supplies to hospitals as patient numbers surged.
The rapid spread of the virus brought new concerns about whether the state’s healthcare system could handle the flow of patients. Many California hospitals are grappling with shortages of supplies while rushing to prepare for what is expected to be a deluge of patients in the coming weeks.
As bad as the numbers are, health officials warned it could get much worse if Californians don’t adhere to the stay-at-home orders, which now could last well into May.
California faces 5,000 coronavirus deaths a week if the state’s stay-at-home policies are relaxed too early, according to one Bay Area health officer.
“Some of the modeling is predicting — at the peak — up to 5,000 deaths a week throughout California,” Dr. Chris Farnitano, health officer for Contra Costa County, told his Board of Supervisors. That would mean 600 deaths a week from the disease known as COVID-19 in the central Bay Area and 100 to 200 deaths a week in Contra Costa County, he said.
“We are still hopeful we can avoid [this scenario] if we don’t relax our efforts to flatten the curve,” said Farnitano, who shared the possible epidemic outcomes on the same day that six Bay Area counties extended and strengthened the nation’s first coronavirus shelter-in-place order.
The news came as local health officials across the state began revealing estimates of potential coronavirus death tolls. There could be 2,000 to 14,000 deaths in Contra Costa County, and perhaps 1,000 deaths in Ventura County, health officers for both counties said.
Last week, the city of San Jose released an estimate saying there could be 2,000 to 16,000 coronavirus deaths in Santa Clara County.
Dr. Robert Levin, health officer for Ventura County, said the number of coronavirus cases coming into hospitals could be like a tsunami. In the last 21 years he’s been tracking the data, the worst year for flu deaths came two years ago, with 49 fatalities — a small fraction of the 1,000 deaths the coronavirus could bring to Ventura County.
“This is not influenza. This is much more serious,” Levin said at a Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday. But he added that he hopes the stay-at-home order will significantly curtail the projected death toll.
Some health officers in California said there are early signs that the order is working. Farnitano noted that California’s coronavirus death toll has been about 10% of New York’s.
Santa Clara County health officer Dr. Sara Cody said that she is seeing a bit of slowing in the number of COVID-19 cases, although she added that she was speaking cautiously.
“The sacrifice that everyone has made, I believe it is starting to bend the curve. But it’s not enough, and it hasn’t been in place for long enough,” Cody said. “So we need to keep at it. We just need to keep at it. I believe it’s beginning to make a difference, and it’s giving our hospitals more time.”
Coronavirus cases in Los Angeles County rose dramatically Wednesday as officials reported more than 500 new cases, bringing the total number of people infected by the virus in the region to 3,528.
County officials also reported 12 additional deaths, bringing the toll to 66. Nine of the 11 people who most recently died were older than 65, and seven had underlying health conditions. One person was between 18 and 40 years old, and another was between 41 and 65 years old, said Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
The coronavirus has also spread to the most vulnerable populations in the county, with five homeless people testing positive for COVID-19, Ferrer said.
Orange County saw its biggest single-day increase in coronavirus infections to date Wednesday, as officials announced 107 new cases and three additional deaths. In all, 606 COVID-19 cases and 10 deaths have been confirmed countywide.
Sign up for the latest news, best stories and what they mean for you, plus answers to your questions.
Another focus of concern was California’s elderly population, who are at high risk of death from the virus.
California regulators have told skilled nursing facility operators that they must accept patients even if they have the virus.
The order comes amid a fierce debate among healthcare providers. Hospitals are desperate to clear space for an expected wave of COVID-19 patients, so they are discharging as many patients as possible, including nursing home residents.
Many nursing home administrators are equally desperate to keep those residents out until they are proven virus-free, fearing a catastrophic result if the deadly pathogen gains a foothold in their institutions.
The directive, in a letter this week to facilities from California Department of Public Health Deputy Director Heidi Steinecker, appears to side squarely with the hospitals. It says skilled nursing facilities “shall not refuse to admit or readmit a resident based on their status as a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case.”
Amid the preparations, federal prosecutors were dealing with a bizarre incident in San Pedro.
Federal prosecutors Wednesday charged a locomotive driver at the Port of Los Angeles with intentionally derailing a train near the U.S. Navy’s hospital ship Mercy because he suspected it was not there to help with the coronavirus crisis.
Eduardo Moreno, 44, of San Pedro, was charged with deliberately wrecking a train during the incident Tuesday, which led to a derailment and fuel leak, according to the charges.
Prosecutors allege that Moreno derailed the train and deliberately crashed through barriers designed to stop engines before grinding to a halt 250 yards from the Mercy.
Moreno reportedly said, “You only get this chance once. The whole world is watching. I had to. People don’t know what’s going on here. Now they will.”
Times staff writers Melissa Gomez, Matt Hamilton, Jack Dolan, Joseph Serna and Taryn Luna contributed to this report.