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California becomes first state to surpass 2 million COVID-19 cases

California surpasses 2 million COVID-19 cases
California surpasses 2 million COVID-19 cases... 02:40

California became the first state on Wednesday to pass the grim mark of 2 million cases of the coronavirus, just six weeks after hitting the 1 million mark, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. California's infection rate — in terms of the number of cases per 100,000 people — is lower than the U.S. average but, with 40 million residents, it outpaces other states in sheer numbers.

More than 23,600 Californians have died from the virus since the pandemic began.

The state has seen its number of cases climb exponentially in recent weeks, followed by soaring rates of hospitalizations and deaths that have overwhelmed intensive care units and prompted hospitals to put emergency room patients in tents and treat others in offices and auditoriums.

Pleas to avoid social gatherings for the holidays rang with special desperation in Southern California. Los Angeles County is leading the surge, accounting for one-third of the COVID-19 cases in the state and nearly 40% of its deaths.

"We know that this emergency is our darkest day, maybe the darkest day in our city's history," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said as he urged people to cancel plans for holiday gatherings. 

APTOPIX Virus Outbreak California
Phlebotomist lab assistant Jennifer Cukati, right, and Registered Nurse Carina Klescewski, left, care for a COVID-19 patient inside the Sutter Roseville Medical Center ICU in Roseville, California, on December 22, 2020. Renee C. Byer/The Sacramento Bee via AP, Pool

The county on Thursday reported new records for deaths — 148 in a single day — and hospitalizations, at nearly 6,500 people, 20% of whom were in ICU.

Meanwhile, officials in Southern California's Orange County reported 3,490 newly confirmed coronavirus cases, CBS Los Angeles reports, and one additional fatality, bringing countywide totals to 138,310 cases and 1,782 deaths. CBS LA also said there was a new record-high hospitalizations, with 1,893 COVID-19 patients hospitalized — a jump of 30 from Wednesday. Of those hospitalized, 405 were being treated in intensive care units — also a pandemic high.

Dozens of nurses picketed Wednesday morning across Orange County, protesting deteriorating conditions inside hospitals that have been brought to a breaking point due to the exponential spike in coronavirus cases, the station said.

Thanksgiving gatherings in California in which people ignored mask-wearing and social-distancing rules have been blamed for spreading the infection and another surge from the Christmas holidays could push stressed medical systems over the brink, officials are warning.

Medical workers are discouraged and outraged over scenes of crowded outdoor malls, packed parking lots, and parents and children walking around without masks, county Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly said.

If LA County continues to see the same growth in COVID-19 infections in the next two weeks, hospitals may find themselves having to ration care because of a lack of medical staff, Garcetti said. "That means the doctors will be forced to determine who lives and who dies," he said.

Video shows dire COVID crisis in California 02:56

Santa Clara County, near San Francisco, was down to 35 ICU beds, putting hospitals dangerously close to rationing care, said Dr. Ahmad Kamal, the county's director of health care preparedness.

Yet there were slight but encouraging signs of hope.

The transmission rate — the number of people that one infected person will in turn infect — has been slowing for nearly two weeks. The rate of positive cases reached a new high of 12.3% over a two-week period but was starting to trend down over the last seven days, from a peak of 13.3% to 12.6%.

The number of new positive cases dropped to a relatively modest 39,069, given that California has been averaging nearly 44,000 newly confirmed cases a day.

The state also had nearly 1,000 health workers assisting at 91 facilities in 25 of the state's 58 counties, and is opening a fifth alternative care site in San Diego County.

Fears of Christmas COVID-19 surge loom 02:40

The California National Guard was setting up about 200 beds on vacant floors of the Palomar Health Center near San Diego, within the existing hospital complex, said Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the Governor's Office of Emergency Services. It could begin accepting patients Christmas Day, relieving overburdened hospitals particularly in nearby Imperial County.

California expects more federal medical workers to arrive by the weekend, and Gov. Gavin Newsom said he expects more of the 3,000 contract health care workers the state is seeking to arrive after the holidays.

The governor also said more than 128,000 doses of vaccines had been administered as of Tuesday, another encouraging sign beyond the modest decline in the transmission rate.

But Newsom also warned that any progress could dissipate quickly, leading to the nearly 100,000 hospitalizations some models project in one month if people don't heed calls to avoid holiday gatherings, particularly indoors.

"This virus loves social events," Newsom said. "This virus thrives in that atmosphere."

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