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California

California’s coronavirus outlook worse than researchers expected, as cases and deaths rise

L.A. County Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

While California has avoided the grim death toll of coronavirus hot spots like New York, there are growing concerns that the state’s most populous regions have not yet seen the rapid decline in deaths and cases needed to significantly reopen the economy.

Cases and deaths in the state have remained relatively flat in recent weeks, with some areas, including Los Angeles County, continuing to see rapid growth, and some rural areas seeing much less.

California is one of a handful of states where coronavirus cases and deaths are rising faster than researchers expected, according to the latest calculations in a widely relied-upon model of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Christopher Murray, director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, said Sunday that the institute’s latest projections suggested the nationwide fatality count would reach 137,000 by Aug. 4. The current total is nearly 80,000.

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Researchers are now predicting that California could see more than 6,000 COVID-19 deaths by the end of August, up about 1,420 from projections they released last Monday. It’s the fifth-largest increase in projected death tolls among U.S. states, after Pennsylvania, Illinois, Arizona and Florida.

The upward revisions “are a result of a combination of updated daily death and case data, recent actions to ease previously implemented social distancing measures and steadily rising levels of mobility in many places,” the researchers said in notes released with the data.

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The picture is mixed in some of the country’s most populous states, Murray said.

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“Some good-ish news coming out of New York and New Jersey and Michigan, where the death cases and death numbers are coming down faster than expected,” he said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “Some other states where cases and deaths are going up more than we expected — Illinois and then Arizona, Florida, California as examples of that.”

California added 2,244 coronavirus cases and 64 related deaths on Saturday. About 40% of the new cases — 907 — were reported by Los Angeles County, as were 45 of the new deaths, or about 70% of the statewide death toll.

The state recorded 826 more cases and 23 more deaths by Sunday afternoon, bringing its total to more than 67,500 cases and 2,700 deaths. In L.A. County, the toll rose to 31,703 coronavirus cases and 1,531 related deaths.

The continued increase has prompted public health officials to urge caution even as some recreation areas and businesses are permitted to reopen.

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“The virus has not changed,” Barbara Ferrer, director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health, said Friday. “It can still spread easily, and it can still result in serious illness and death.”

State and local officials this weekend began to ease some stay-at-home restrictions, but most remain in place, and it’s still not clear when many businesses will reopen.

Most big California counties are not close to meeting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s strict standards that would allow a wider reopening of the economy, including dine-in restaurants and shopping malls, a Times data analysis found.

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Newsom announced Thursday a series of benchmarks that each of California’s 58 counties would need to reach to significantly reopen faster than the statewide standard. Can the county show that people have stopped dying from COVID-19? Have new cases fallen to a manageable level? Can officials adequately test people? Do they have enough detectives to track down newly infected people? And do they have enough medical supplies?

About 95% of Californians live in counties that don’t meet that standard, The Times’ analysis found. Not a single county in Southern California or the San Francisco Bay Area met the criteria.

Newsom suggested Friday that the guidelines would be later modified on a statewide basis, allowing the larger counties hit hardest by the outbreak to also reopen more broadly.

In the latest step toward easing restrictions, Long Beach will reopen beach bike and pedestrian paths, as well as tennis courts and the parking lots of public parks, on Monday. Beaches and beach parking lots will remain closed.

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People who use the parks, paths and tennis courts will be required to stay six feet apart and refrain from lingering or gathering in groups. Gatherings and picnics remain prohibited.

San Bernardino County reported its largest one-day increase in new cases Saturday, adding 273 cases and three deaths, for a total of 2,902 cases and 114 deaths. Some of the new cases are linked to an outbreak at the California Institution for Men in Chino, where at least 386 inmates had been infected and four had died as of Sunday, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Case counts also have shot up in Santa Barbara County, where an outbreak at Federal Correctional Institution Lompoc has sickened 862 inmates and 14 staff. At a neighboring medium-security prison on the same grounds, 114 inmates and 20 staff have become infected, officials said. Two inmates have died after contracting the virus there.

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Combined, the two federal prisons in Lompoc have 976 infected inmates, making it the largest outbreak at a federal penitentiary in the nation, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. That accounts for roughly 75% of the 1,308 cases reported by Santa Barbara County to date. Of the 58 new cases the county reported on Sunday, 56 were associated with the federal prison complex in Lompoc, officials said.

The nation’s second-largest outbreak at a federal prison was at Terminal Island in San Pedro, where on Saturday a 70-year-old man became the seventh inmate to die after testing positive for the virus. Scott Cutting, who was serving a 26-month sentence for aiding and assisting in the preparation of false tax returns, had been hospitalized since April 14, officials said.

A total of 699 inmates and 15 staff members at the Terminal Island prison had tested positive for the coronavirus as of Sunday, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

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The virus continues to spread in Orange County, where the number of new cases is doubling every 18.5 days, compared with every 22.8 days in Los Angeles County and every 24.3 days in Riverside County.

Orange County recorded 122 more cases and two new deaths Sunday, bringing its total to 3,502 cases and 76 deaths. There were 178 COVID-19 patients in county hospitals, including 59 in intensive care.

The county has been the site of numerous acts of resistance against statewide stay-at-home orders since they were announced by Newsom on March 19.

Demonstrators have been gathering regularly in Huntington Beach to protest the rules, most recently on Saturday, when a crowd of about 1,500 amassed to call for the state and nation to fully reopen. Similar protests have taken place in San Clemente, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach.

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Some businesses have chosen to reopen in defiance of the orders, including a surf-themed restaurant in San Clemente that reportedly became so busy that it ran out of food.

The county’s beaches also became flashpoints for controversy last month, when Newsom ordered their temporary closure after some became crowded with visitors during a heat wave. Many local officials publicly challenged the decision, saying beachgoers were following social distancing rules, and news photographs that showed crowding were misleading.

The beaches reopened last week after local officials agreed to permit active recreation only, but the city of Huntington Beach is moving forward with a lawsuit challenging Newsom’s temporary closure. The city of Newport Beach filed an amicus brief in support of the action.

Though urban and densely populated counties have been hit hardest by the virus, there were also signs it was spreading to some rural areas.

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Trinity County reported its first case of the coronavirus on Friday, the county public health department said in a news release. Officials released few details but said they were working on identifying other individuals who might have been exposed.


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