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Still no timetable for reopening California as coronavirus deaths rise

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Despite more positive developments in the fight against the coronavirus in California, state and local officials said Wednesday that there is still no firm timetable for easing stay-at-home restrictions that have helped slow the spread of COVID-19.

California reported more than 100 new deaths linked to COVID-19 on Wednesday, including 66 in Los Angeles County, which has seen a surge in fatalities in recent weeks. Though hospitals are not being overwhelmed, they continue to see a steady flow of patients.

“I wish I could prescribe a specific date to say, well, we can turn up the light switch and go back to normalcy,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday. “We have tried to make it crystal clear that there is no light switch. And there is no date in terms of our capacity to provide the kind of clarity that I know so many of you demand and deserve.”

Despite the rising death toll, Los Angeles County health officials offered slightly rosier projections Wednesday about the trajectory of the virus while cautioning that the improved outlook was dependent on residents continuing to practice physical distancing.

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Dr. Christina Ghaly, the county’s health services director, said that although COVID-19 cases are not yet decreasing here, the rate “is leveling out, which is a good thing.”

“Ten days ago, our best prediction was that we were going to see a continued increase in the daily number of new patients, but we weren’t sure how rapid that rise would be and how steep that slope would be,” she said. “Instead, as a result of physical distancing, our current projection is that the number of new cases will remain steady.”

Based on the new predictions — which Ghaly cautioned are inherently uncertain — officials continue to expect to meet demand for hospital beds and ventilators. Notably, the county’s ability to meet demand for intensive care beds has improved; initial modeling said there was a 50% chance there would not be enough ICU beds, but the model now indicates the number of currently available beds will be sufficient.

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Officials now predict about 2 in 20 Angelenos, or 11% of the county, could contract the virus by Aug. 1 under the current level of physical distancing. That’s a substantial reduction from the model’s original estimate that 30% of county residents could be infected.

Dr. Roger Lewis, a biostatistician and chairman of the emergency medicine department at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, said the original 30% prediction reflected the average of numerous possibilities, including a potential surge in cases or a slower spread.

“Luckily — and this is good news — the number of cases has been in the lower range of the uncertainty we had with the prior model,” said Lewis, who directs the county model.

Newsom on Wednesday announced an expansion of coronavirus testing capability throughout California, saying the findings will be critical to deciding when to ease the state’s strict stay-at-home order and allow people to return to work.

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The governor’s announcement came as more cities and counties have urged him to modify the restrictions, which they say have put local economies on the brink of ruin. Newsom has resisted, saying that COVID-19 remains a serious and growing health threat and that loosening his statewide order prematurely could lead to a second wave of infections and fatalities.

But, he said, the prospect of lifting the restrictions becomes more feasible with widespread testing. The data will increase the ability of public health officials to closely track potential cases, an essential requirement for California to ease into the next phase of the pandemic while still stemming the spread of the virus.

The governor announced several new efforts to increase testing, noting that President Trump committed in a phone call Wednesday to providing California with critically needed specimen swabs, which have been in short supply. Newsom said 100,000 swabs are expected to arrive this week and 250,000 next week.

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Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said all critical workers in Los Angeles, including those without symptoms, can get tested for the virus at county sites.

Healthcare professionals, grocery store employees, first responders and critical government employees can get swabbed at any of the testing sites throughout the county.

The expanded testing criteria, which the mayor said he hopes provide some peace of mind to workers, are also a critical milestone “on the road to reopening.”

But officials emphasized that Los Angeles is not there yet.

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In addition to the 66 COVID-19 deaths announced Wednesday, bringing the number to 729 since the outbreak began, 1,318 new COVID-19 cases brought the cumulative total to 16,435, said Barbara Ferrer, L.A. County’s public health director.

As of Wednesday, 1,791 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized countywide — with 30% of them in intensive care and 19% on ventilators, Ferrer said.

The latest victims include 48 people who were older than 65, 13 people who were 41 to 65 years old and two people who were 18 to 40 years old. Age ranges were not available for the other three.

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Of all those who have died of COVID-19-related causes in the county, 88% had some kind of underlying health condition, Ferrer said.

“This underscores the need for all of us to do the best job possible to make sure people who have serious health conditions are able to stay home and stay safe,” she said.

Willon and Mason reported from Northern California, Gerber and Money from Southern California.


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