As large parts of California went back into lockdown and healthcare systems creaked under the strain in many states, new cases of Covid-19 in the US remained above 200,000 on Saturday, with more than 2,000 deaths.
Johns Hopkins University recorded 213,875 new cases, down from nearly 228,000 on Friday in a week of surging figures after a Thanksgiving lull in record-keeping. Amid records worsened by holiday travel and gatherings, there were 2,254 new deaths, making the full death toll 280,979 from nearly 14.6m cases.
There were 101,190 hospitalisations, according to the Covid Tracking Project, slightly down on Friday’s record. The seven-day rolling average of deaths has passed 2,000 for the first time since spring. Two weeks ago, it was 1,448.
In an urgent attempt to slow the rapid rise of coronavirus cases, a vast region of southern California, much of the San Francisco Bay area and a large swath of the Central Valley were to be placed under a sweeping new lockdown from Sunday night.
The state public health department said intensive care capacity in southern California and Central Valley hospitals fell below a 15% threshold that triggers the new measures, which include strict closures for businesses and a ban on gathering with anyone outside of your own household. The new measures will remain in place for at least three weeks, covering the Christmas holiday.
Much of the rest of the state is on the brink of the same restrictions. Some counties have opted to impose them before the mandate kicks in, including five San Francisco Bay Area counties.
Governor Gavin Newsom announced the new plan on Thursday, the most restrictive order since he imposed the first US statewide stay-at-home rule in March. But the situation is now bleaker.
“The risk of contracting Covid in the community now is higher now than it has ever been,” Dr Eric McDonald, medical director for San Diego county, told reporters on Saturday, urging the public to help the state get through its worst wave of cases.
California has recorded 1.3m cases, setting a new daily record on Friday with 25,068. Hospitalisations have topped 9,000 and more than 2,100 patients are in ICU care.
The 11-county southern California region, which includes Los Angeles and San Diego, had only 12.5% of ICU beds available, the state reported on Saturday. The figure was 8.6% for the San Joaquin Valley, a dozen counties in the Central Valley and rural areas of the Sierra Nevada. Together the two regions are home to more than half of California’s population of 40 million.
“We are at a point where surging cases and hospitalisations are not letting up,” said Dr Salvador Sandoval, public health officer for the city of Merced. “I can’t emphasise this enough – everyone must take personal steps to protect themselves and protect others.”
The other three regions – Greater Sacramento, northern California and San Francisco Bay area – were around 21% capacity. But health officers in five of the Bay Area’s 11 counties didn’t wait. On Friday, they adopted the state stay-at-home order for San Francisco, Santa Clara, Marin, Alameda and Contra Costa counties, as well as the city of Berkeley.
“Our biggest fear all along – that we won’t have a bed for you or your mother or your grandmother or grandfather when they get sick – is the reality we’ll be facing unless we slow the spread,” San Francisco mayor London Breed said.
The Bay Area order will last at least through 4 January, a week longer than the state timeline.
The new shutdowns were a gut-wrenching move for small businesses. Michelle Saunders James was in tears on Friday at the thought of closing down her Oakland nail salon just five weeks after reopening.
“We wear [face] shields. We take temperatures. We do everything we are told to do so everyone feels safe, including our staff and team,” she told KGO-TV. “So I don’t understand why it’s not enough, and I’m terribly sad and afraid.”
Other states are struggling and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised the wearing of masks indoors anywhere except the home.
In Arizona on Saturday, the top public health official reported a near-record of nearly 6,800 new infections, telling people to wear masks around anyone outside their household, “even those you know and trust”.
“We must act as though anyone we are around may be infected,” Dr Cara Christ wrote on Twitter.