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California hits 4 million coronavirus cases as Delta variant spreads

A person talks to workers at a table with signs about COVID vaccines
Dr. David Haim Bolour, center, explains the importance of getting vaccinated against COVID-19 to a visitor at a stall set up by the L.A. County Department of Public Health at Ted Watkins Memorial Park in Los Angeles.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times )

California has now reported 4 million coronavirus infections, Times data show — a milestone that underscores the extent to which the pandemic has roared back to life as the ultra-transmissible Delta variant continues to storm across the state.

Breaking that barrier seemed a far-off prospect only weeks ago, when the state reopened its economy amid tumbling transmission rates and ushered in a hopeful chapter in the long-running battle against COVID-19.

But the coronavirus has since rebounded with ferocity, and California is seeing a level of daily infection higher than at any point during last summer’s surge.

Despite the rapid rise in cases, the numbers of Californians hospitalized with and dying from COVID-19 remain lower than those seen a year ago, and well shy of the darkest days of the fall-and-winter wave.

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Officials have previously expressed optimism that the patient count and death toll won’t climb back to such harrowing heights. But the full extent of the pandemic’s latest punch probably won’t become clear for at least a few weeks because hospitalizations and deaths lag behind spikes in new cases.

Over the seven-day period ending Thursday, California reported an average of 10,325 new coronavirus cases a day, according to data compiled by The Times. The last time that average was above 10,000 was in mid-February.

The highest average recorded during last summer‘s surge was 9,632 new cases a day for the weeklong period ending July 22, 2020, Times figures show.

And the rolling weekly average continues to rise — hitting 10,808 as of Friday.

But the rate at which cases are increasing has slowed, including in L.A. County, where officials imposed indoor mask requirements last month and believe it has helped.

Additional data illustrate differences between the current pandemic landscape and last year.

On July 22, 2020, for instance, 6,825 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized statewide — compared with 5,328 on Thursday.

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The difference in deaths is even starker. Over the last week, California has averaged 27 COVID-19 fatalities per day, one-fourth as many as were being reported daily nearly 13 months ago.

Both the 2020 and 2021 summer surges pale in comparison to the fury of the fall-and-winter spike. At its height, the state was reporting an average of more than 40,000 daily cases, nearly 22,000 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized at times, and daily death tolls were regularly in the hundreds.

Earlier in the pandemic, officials described the course of COVID-19 as a devastating domino effect: with increases in cases triggering resulting rises in hospitalizations about two weeks later, and in deaths a bit after that.

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But there’s hope that chain might be broken this time around, given how many Californians — especially older residents particularly vulnerable to severe disease — have already been vaccinated against COVID-19.

In the past, Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the trend has been hospitalizations “usually increasing two weeks after we begin to see significant case increases, and multiplying almost in direct proportion to cases.”

“We’re not currently seeing that pattern replicate itself during our current surge of cases,” she told reporters Thursday. “Although cases have increased by about 550% over the past month, hospitalizations increased by about 290%.”

L.A. County’s latest COVID-19 surge shows signs of leveling off somewhat, after mask mandate returned and vaccine requirements emerged.

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It was less than two months ago that California celebrated its reopening — rescinding coronavirus-related capacity restrictions and physical distancing requirements for the general public at almost all businesses and other institutions, and declaring that fully vaccinated residents could go mask-free in virtually all settings.

For the most part, such measures remain off the books. While some counties are now mandating that all residents mask up in indoor public settings, the state has only issued a recommendation to that effect.

Officials are instead laser-focused on vaccinations, which they say represent not only the best tool to turn the tide this time around but also to armor California against the possibility of future coronavirus resurgences.

“We can end this pandemic. We could put this behind us in a month. It’s a choice at the end of the day,” Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters Friday.

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He added: “If we get everyone vaccinated … we can take these masks off once and for all.”

The mandate applies to employees in hospitals and skilled nursing facilities, as well as most other healthcare settings, and stipulates that they complete their COVID-19 inoculation regimen by Sept. 30.

Already, 54% of Californians are fully vaccinated, according to data compiled by The Times.

But that’s well short of the coverage thought necessary to reach herd immunity — the level at which sustained transmission of the virus is interrupted. Estimates of that threshold vary, but experts generally peg it between 70% and 85%.

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Getting more people to roll up their sleeves is especially vital now, officials say, because of the widespread circulation of the Delta variant — believed to be the most contagious strain of the coronavirus yet.

Given its ramped-up transmissibility, that variant preys particularly easily on the uninoculated. But many corners of California are now asking even those who are fully vaccinated to take additional precautions, such as wearing masks in indoor public places, to protect themselves.

Government officials are also increasingly contemplating more stringent vaccine verification requirements as a way to further boost coverage.

The L.A. City Council will consider requiring that people show their vaccination status to visit indoor places such as restaurants, stores and gyms.

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California on Thursday ordered that healthcare workers statewide be fully vaccinated come early fall. A day earlier, L.A. County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Hilda Solis issued an executive order requiring the county’s 110,000 employees to document their inoculation status by Oct. 1.

Some leaders in the city of Los Angeles have also proposed requiring eligible individuals to demonstrate that they’ve received at least one vaccination dose to visit indoor places such as restaurants, bars, retail stores, gyms, spas, movie theaters, stadiums and concert venues.

“Those that are unvaccinated need to get vaccinated,” Newsom said. “That way, we can keep our kids without any stress or anxiety back in person throughout the school year, we can keep our businesses open without any stress or anxiety throughout the recovery period. We have that capacity.”

Times staff writer Ben Welsh contributed to this report.


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