With social distancing, California’s virus forecast brightens

A driver in a vehicle drops his COVID-19 test into a bin at a coronavirus mobile testing site at Lincoln Park in Los Angeles, California on April 10, 2020 as COVID-19 antibody testing begins at undiscolsed locations across Los Angeles County (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

A driver in a vehicle drops his COVID-19 test into a bin at a coronavirus mobile testing site at Lincoln Park in Los Angeles, California on April 10, 2020 as COVID-19 antibody testing begins at undiscolsed locations across Los Angeles County (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

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California’s top public health official said for the first time Friday that the coronavirus might not be as devastating as state officials had feared and Gavin Newsom revealed his administration now is planning for how to reopen the state.

But with Easter Sunday and sunny weather on the horizon, Newsom implored people to stay away from others to not undo the significant progress under his stay-at-home order. Across California, local government officials closed streets, parks and other public spaces to deter people from gathering.

Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, said models state officials have created to track the virus had been showing a peak by the middle of next month but the picture has improved as people limited their movement.

“Our peak may not end up being as high as we actually planned around and expected,” Ghaly said. “The difference between what we are seeing today in our hospitals may not be that much different than where we are going to peak in the many weeks to come.”

California has more than 21,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 600 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, figures far lower than New York, where the infections have been most prevalent and deadly.

But the key figure for California officials is the number of hospitalizations, especially those people in intensive care, which is an indicator of how many hospital beds, staff and medical equipment the state needs.

On Thursday, ICU hospitalizations rose 1.1% after falling for the first time on Wednesday. Overall, 1,145 people were in intensive care statewide, leaving ample open space for new patients.

“When we are in single digits, low single digits, that’s a very good day,” Newsom said.

California was quick to order residents to stay at home to contain the spread of the virus, forcing schools and nonessential businesses to close and residents to stay inside for more than a month.

Newsom offered hope Friday as he said his administration was preparing “detailed strategies” about the best way to get the state back up and running. He promised to share information soon.

“Nonetheless, that will be fundamentally determined on the basis of your individual behavior. No one can impact this more than you,” he said. “Your decision will determine what the state and federal government do in this respect.”

Business groups are also planning, with some of the state’s largest trade associations holding conference calls about what they should ask the government to do to jump-start the economy.

“We want our businesses back open. We want to have the ability to continue to grow and to expand,” said Rex Hime, president and CEO of the California Business Properties Association. “There is not a single person I have talked to in our industry that wants to do anything rash or to do anything that is going to set this clock backwards instead of going forward.”

But some were frustrated they have been left out of Newsom’s plans. Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailers Association, said her group has been writing letters to Newsom, asking to be included in such discussions.

“We want to see him engaging us,” said Michelin, who represents grocery chains, big box stores and other retailers. “We’ve been willing and said we want to help you, but yet we don’t even get a response.”

Even as officials make plans for reopening the state, authorities in Los Angeles County were extending the stay-at-home order to May 15. The state’s largest county, with 10 million residents, accounts for about 40% of the state’s virus cases and deaths.

County health officials said case data is trending in the right direction but that any quick relaxation of orders meant to keep people apart could cause a spike in infections.

Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the county health department, said it’s important for people to continue their efforts and be patient. How soon any rollbacks occur “really does depend on the data,” she said.

The dangers posed by the virus remain evident, especially among vulnerable groups like the elderly in nursing homes and homeless people.

In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed said 70 people in the city’s largest homeless shelter tested positive for COVID-19, including two workers. It’s so far the largest documented outbreak among the homeless in California.

Officials had expected such outbreaks but that did not lessen the fury from advocates who pointed out city shelters didn’t have thermometers to take people’s temperatures and did not separate beds until well after the outbreak started.

“We’ve been yelling and screaming for a month to get people out of these crowded shelters and protect people,” Supervisor Matt Haney posted on Twitter.

Meanwhile, more than 1,200 people at 191 skilled nursing facilities have tested positive for COVID-19, Newsom said. Another 370 people are infected at 94 residential care facilities.

Some patients got the virus after being treated at local hospitals, Newsom said. On Friday, the governor announced the Navy hospital ship Mercy docked at the Port of Los Angeles would begin prioritizing treatment for nursing home patients who have not tested positive for the coronavirus.

“This is a generation that not only won wars, but built the largest and most vibrant middle class,” Newsom said. “We need to be there for them in their time of need.”

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