California's top health official on Tuesday said coronavirus cases are expected to continue to climb in the state and that everyday activities now carry a much greater risk of infection.
Dr. Mark Ghaly, California's secretary of health and human services, said the roughly 23,000 new virus cases reported Tuesday include test results from over the weekend and that these tend to skew lower. He urged California's 40 million residents to stay home wherever possible and said he doesn't believe the state has reached a peak in the virus surge that began in October.
“The fact is that transmission is now so widespread across our state that most all non-essential activities create a serious risk for transmission,” Ghaly told reporters.
The warning comes as California authorities sent a cellphone text alert to millions of residents in two major regions of the state asking them to stay home except for essential activities. The blast — which also urged people to wear masks and physically distance — was sent to the state-designated 11-county Southern California region and 12-county San Joaquin Valley region by California's Office of Emergency Services.
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Both regions came under increased restrictions this week after the capacity of hospital intensive care units dropped below 15%. The regions will be eligible to emerge from the order on Dec. 28 if ICU capacity projections for the following month are above or equal to that threshold, the emergency services office said.
Meanwhile, three counties northwest of Los Angeles said they plan to seek state approval to separate themselves from the Southern California region if their collective ICU capacity exceeds 15% in the next three weeks. At that point, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties said they would ask to be assessed on the tri-county ICU capacity and not the overall ICU capacity for the sprawling Southern California region.
But Ghaly said he had no plans to break up any of the regions and that these were created in line with pre-existing groupings used by local public health officials. The goal is to be able to relieve any sudden increase pressure on an intensive care unit by moving patients within a region, he said.
California's 7-day average for new daily virus cases has doubled over the past two weeks, while the positivity rate jumped 55 percent, Ghaly said. Hospitalizations rose 70 percent over the same period with pressure mounting on intensive care units that rely on specialized staff to make life-saving decisions for coronavirus and non-virus patients, he said.
Amid the recent surge in virus cases, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom last week divided the state into five regions and said his administration would use intensive care unit capacity in each one as a trigger for widespread closures.
That trigger was met this weekend in the two regions and five Bay Area counties that adopted the measures as a precaution, putting the vast majority of the state's residents under stay-at-home-orders. The move has been decried by many small business owners and residents weary of the pandemic.
The Southern California region includes Los Angeles County, where public health officials say the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has surpassed all-time highs every day since Dec. 1.
While gatherings are banned in Los Angeles County under public health orders, 158 people were arrested at an illegal house party Saturday, the Sheriff's Department said. Sheriff Alex Villanueva recently said since March he focused on educating people about virus-related restrictions but now will crack down on “super-spreader events.”