California passed 3 million total coronavirus cases Tuesday — a mind-boggling milestone that arrived amid promising signs that the pandemic has plateaued following a months-long surge, as well as fresh concerns that recently confirmed variants could add more fuel to the viral wildfire.
The 3-million case mark, confirmed through a Times survey of county and local health departments, demonstrates just how widely the coronavirus has spread throughout the nation’s most-populous state.
Clearing that threshold means roughly 1 out of every 13 Californians have been infected at some point during the pandemic.
It took roughly 10 months for the state to reach 1 million confirmed cases, which happened in mid-November. California went on to hit 2 million cumulative infections shortly before Christmas.
Now, only about four weeks later, the state has added another million cases to its total.
Dr. Tomás Aragón, the state public health officer and director of the California Department of Public Health, called the case number “a serious reminder that COVID-19 is prevalent throughout California” and said “we all need to do our part by staying home, wearing a mask, avoiding gathering, especially indoors, frequent hand washing and getting vaccinated when eligible and available.”
“While we are seeing some encouraging signs as hospitalizations and case rates are decreasing, California remains relentless in its commitment in the battle against COVID-19,” Aragón said. “We cannot become complacent because a vaccine is now available.”
The slope and scope of the pandemic’s latest wave makes California’s summertime surge look like a speed bump.
Back then, the highest number of daily reported infections topped out at roughly 13,000 statewide. Over the last week, California has averaged nearly 36,000 new cases per day, according to data compiled by The Times.
As astonishing as that rate is, it’s actually tumbled a bit. It wasn’t long ago that the state was seeing nearly 45,000 cases a day.
While the latest numbers are likely influenced somewhat by delays in testing or data reporting over the long Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, they are further evidence that the coronavirus has leveled off — and that California may have avoided the kind of apocalyptic post-Christmas surge that officials had long warned could overwhelm the state’s healthcare system.
California has also seen a flattening, and even a slight decline, in the number of people requiring hospitalization for COVID-19. There were 20,138 coronavirus-positive Californians hospitalized as of Sunday, which is a 7% decline from a week ago, according to the latest state data.
The number of people ill enough to require intensive care has also dipped recently, to 4,719 as of Sunday. That’s down 3% from the previous week.
Though slight, any declines come as welcome news to California’s beleaguered hospitals and healthcare workers, who have had to contend with sharp and sustained increases in the number of COVID-19 patients since early November.
Many ICUs remain stressed throughout the state, however — particularly in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley, which have both reported 0% availability in their intensive care units for weeks. That doesn’t mean no beds are open at all but that hospitals have had to take significant, even drastic, steps to care for the sickest patients.
Officials warn the recent progress is fragile — and that the stakes remain high. Nearly 34,000 Californians have died from COVID-19, and vaccine supplies are still not adequate. In most of Los Angeles County, senior citizens 65 and older have not been vaccinated, despite an announcement from Gov. Gavin Newsom last week that they were eligible.
“We are closer and closer to ending this pandemic, and collective action is what makes the difference in how many more people die,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a statement Monday.
That’s particularly the case as California grapples with the presence of new variants of the coronavirus, including one — known as B.1.1.7 — that was first identified in Britain, and which scientists believe is even more contagious.
Because of its potential to spread quickly, modeling indicates that variant “has the potential to increase the U.S. pandemic trajectory in the coming months” and could become “the predominant variant in March,” according to a recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Another new coronavirus strain — dubbed CAL.20C — could have contributed to the significant winter surge seen throughout Southern California, according to recent research published by Cedars-Sinai.
Researchers said in a statement that the strain “was almost nonexistent in October,” but “by December, 36.4% of virus samples from Cedars-Sinai patients were determined to be the strain, as were 24% of all samples from Southern California.”
“The recent surge in COVID-19 positive cases in Southern California coincides with the emergence of CAL.20C,” said Dr. Eric Vail, director of molecular pathology in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Cedars-Sinai.
Viral mutations are not unexpected and, in many cases, don’t end up making much of a difference, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious diseases expert.
“When you have a lot of virus that’s circulating in the community, it means it’s infecting a lot of people, it’s replicating a lot. And, when you replicate, you mutate,” he said during a virtual conversation with Newsom late last month. “The overwhelming majority of mutations are irrelevant. They don’t have any impact on any important function of the virus.”
But, he added, “every once in a while, you get a mutation that does” — as appears to be the case with the U.K. variant. Even so, scientists believe that variant isn’t more likely to be fatal or make people sicker once they are infected, and there’s also no evidence that the newly developed vaccines won’t be effective against it.
However, given the continued infection risk, as well as the relative scarcity of vaccines at this point, health officials emphasize that the best way to tamp down transmission of the coronavirus is through adherence to the oft-recited infection prevention protocols — such as wearing masks in public, avoiding gatherings with those outside your household, regularly washing your hands and staying home when you’re sick.
“It will take a few more months before there is enough vaccine supply available and enough people vaccinated to provide us with the level of protection needed to end the pandemic,” Ferrer said. “Given the emergence of variants that may be more easily transmissible, now would be the time to figure out how you should modify your current activities to reduce exposure to others, since many people who are out and about are infected with COVID-19.”