The turnaround has baffled health leaders and experts. They can point out a number of reasons that have contributed to California’s surge in recent weeks. But it is difficult to pinpoint a single factor – and equally difficult to find a silver bullet.
It could not come at a worse time, as the Christmas and New Year holidays have arrived, and officials fear that residents are even more likely to travel and get together than during the Thanksgiving period, which boosted current trends.
“We are facing a very, very difficult and very dangerous time in our municipality, in our region and in our state. All of our numbers are going in the wrong direction and our reality is pretty bleak right now, ”said Sara Cody, public health officer for Santa Clara County, on Wednesday.
“If we have a wave at the top of a wave,” she added, “we are definitely going to break.”
In more than 100 new daily cases per 100,000 residents, California’s case rate is only lower than Tennessee’s, according to the nonprofit tracking website Covid Act Now – although it’s a state that doesn’t require the use of a mask and allows internal meetings of up to 10 people. The Covid Exit Strategy website shows a 97 percent increase in Covid across California, which was in the opposite direction from its West Coast, Oregon and Washington counterparts.
In Los Angeles, officials said all the time that people met very often. They blamed the celebrations and post-season screening parties when the Dodgers and Lakers won the championships this fall.
Some blamed the strict rules themselves, saying that the confined Californians couldn’t take it anymore and decided that they need to live their lives. Others said that congregational environments remain a serious concern in a state of housing restriction, especially in low-income communities where residents live in tight quarters and must continue to work personally to survive.
The state did not employ strict enforcement and relied on its regulatory agencies to name the most offending establishments in individual cases. But it has no real impact against people who gather or engage in daily social activities, and many local law enforcement agencies have made a point of declaring that they will not become the police that stay at home.
“It is a great state. We get big numbers when things go wrong, ”said George Rutherford, professor of epidemiology and statistics at the University of California, San Francisco.
California has started providing health workers with its initial vaccines, but immunizations are not expected to have a dramatic impact on the spread of the infection for months, until a wider distribution occurs.
In the meantime, the state is running out of levers to control the spread, leaving public health officials little choice but to beg residents to follow the rules.
Governor Gavin Newsom has said all along that the state depends on social pressure to keep people apart. The state, with the help of private donors, has spent tens of millions of dollars on billboards and advertisements calling for responsible behavior. But Newsom himself made a mistake in November, when he attended a lavish dinner with lobbyists – a gaffe that fueled the resentment and resistance of residents already besieged by months of prohibitions.
California, with almost 40 million residents, is close to 2 million cases and more than 22,000 deaths. By any calculation, the numbers of California outbreaks are staggering. With rapid and logarithmic growth, the virus has become so prevalent that it has simply become easier to spread.
In the biggest shopping month of the year, the parking lots of malls and stores are full. These stores are among the few internal operations that can remain open with the stated capacity limits. Google’s mobility data suggests that Newsom’s home stay requests in December barely made a difference in keeping people at home compared to previous months, although the baseline doesn’t say whether it may have reduced traffic compared to last December.
Rutherford does not think the general population fully understands the seriousness of the current increase. “People think they can deal with the virus,” he said. “Here’s a tip: they can’t.”
Critics questioned the science behind regional blockade orders. Public and industry pressure has already convinced state health officials to reopen playgrounds and relax supermarket capacity limits. A Los Angeles court judge also said the county’s ban on outdoor dining was “arbitrary” and that there was insufficient evidence showing it was a source of the virus’s spread.
“Nationally, there has been a kaleidoscopic application of every imaginable type of blocking order, with California being the most restrictive and causing the greatest devastation to small businesses and the most economically vulnerable service workers. Even so, we are no better when it comes to COVID, ”said California Restaurant Association President and CEO Jot Condie in a statement. “In fact, in LA, where indoor and outdoor dining is completely closed, with indoor dining [closed] since July, the virus continues. ”
Assembly member Jordan Cunningham (R-Templeton) argued that the state’s attempt to “end types of human interaction without seeing if this is effective” was creating a kind of reaction – “getting people into high-risk activities”, like meeting at home, rather than places like restaurants.
“Public health officials have lost credibility with a large part of the population. They’re just turning them off now, ”said Cunningham. “The goals are moving all the time. … People are sick of it and think it doesn’t make sense, and they are not wrong ”.
There are small contrary signs, however, that California can change things.
The number of new cases has stopped increasing dramatically this week, reaching a plateau of less than 40,000 a day. It also remains debatable to what extent California’s broader test access is contributing to higher per capita numbers than elsewhere; the 12 percent positivity rate here, for example, remains lower than many of the most affected states. Meanwhile, only 16 states have a lower Covid-19 mortality rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Most of the transmission is being conducted in the Central Valley and Southern California regions – areas more populated than many states in the United States – and some health experts argue that the California outbreak should be seen as a multitude of separate outbreaks with unique causes. Most of northern California still has an ICU capacity above 10%, while the southern part of the state, by comparison, has shifted to its peak phase.
Still, even residents of the San Francisco Bay area, which had many of the strictest rules throughout the year, let their guard down to some extent and saw the number soar. For some, the decision to ignore orders may boil down to the survival of their business and the ability to put food on the table. Many essential workers and people living in disadvantaged areas across the state had little choice but to continue working.
Andrew Noymer, associate professor of population health and disease prevention at the University of California at Irvine, said people often look at California’s status as a deep blue state to suggest that left-wing residents uniformly agree to the blocking and protocols believe in staying at home. But this ignores a large proportion of residents who think otherwise, even if they are not the majority.
“In politics, 40 percent does not prevail, but 40 percent can lead to the epidemic,” said Noymer. “California is a deep blue, but … from a virus perspective, we are much more purple than people believe for . “
California reported a record 361 Covid-related deaths on Wednesday the previous day, but the statewide seven-day positivity rate has declined slightly in the past few days. San Francisco health officials noted this week that the virus’s reproductive rate is starting to drop – dropping to 1.24 on December 20 from 1.45 on December 5 – a sign that requests to stay at home may have started operating in the city.
But Noymer takes a more pessimistic view. Given that December was the worst month of the pandemic before the holidays, January could be worse, he said.
“We have not overcome this crisis,” he said. “It is too early for a post-mortem analysis of what worked and what didn’t.”
Jeremy B. White contributed to this report.