California appears to have turned a corner after a swell of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations earlier this summer, though the path toward economic recovery remains more precarious than ever.
Hospitalizations have dropped to the lowest point in nearly six weeks, new caseloads have slowed down and the death toll has begun to level off — all “encouraging” signs that the virus’s grip has lessened in recent weeks, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday. But that positive message came as many out-of-work Californians anxiously wait key decisions on eviction and unemployment policies.
“These are specific proof points that connect to some optimism that what we’re doing as a state … that what you are doing is working,” Newsom said, adding, “We want to continue to see these numbers go down.”
In early July, Californians who got sick in the early weeks of summer began flooding hospital beds — prompting Newsom to shut down more sectors of the economy by the middle of the month. Hospitalizations statewide quickly ramped up to an all-time peak with more than 7,000 patients by July 21st; since then, California has shed a whopping 22% of patients and hitting 5,549 as of Tuesday.
New cases, meanwhile, have also dropped off — a trend that was initially questioned after a series of errors led the state to accidentally backlog up to 300,000 lab records. Over the weekend, the state began processing those records, which counties are now analyzing and adding to their own data platforms. Of the state’s approximately 12,000 new cases Tuesday, about half represented backlogged data, Newsom said.
On Wednesday, California counties reported 8,346 new cases and 161 new deaths, according to data compiled by this news organization.
“It’s a little bit more optimistic,” Newsom said of the declining case numbers. “Again, another indication that we’re turning a corner on this pandemic.”
Even so, California is hovering in the highest plateau of COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began. After reporting the most deaths ever in a single day — 215 — on July 31st, the state’s seven-day average of deaths has remained above 125 for the past two weeks. Before mid-July, that average had never scraped 100.
Those numbers are likely to stabilize throughout August and the sickest patients among the dwindling wave of hospitalizations pass away, said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an epidemiologist with University of California, San Francisco. The seven-day average for weekly deaths already dropped down to 135 as of Tuesday.
After that, Chin-Hong said, new cases and hospitalizations will hit another trough — before people get antsy to go out, schools and businesses reopen and parties resume, all of which could lead to yet another peak of infections in the early fall.
“It’ll be the unfortunate roller coaster of COVID,” Chin-Hong said.
Newsom, for his part, seemed determined to avoid that fate. When asked about the next potential wave of reopenings, he said that his office will use a “much more intentional and deliberate mindset” to promote safe practices and behaviors.
How many of those decisions will play out, however, remains largely up in the air. Even as California has seen about 7.31 million workers file for unemployment since mid-March, the state hasn’t delivered payments to more than 1 million of them whose claims remain stuck in the bureaucratic process. That burden only increased with the loss of the $600 weekly federal unemployment dollars at the end of July.
At the same time, the future of the statewide eviction moratorium is in flux after the Judicial Council of California said it would likely end the ban on September 1st — potentially leaving millions of renters on the hook.
Even as Newson rattled off various strategies Wednesday his team will consider to jumpstart the economy — like streamlining small business permits and developing a new tax credit — the governor offered no immediate promises on either front. His team plans to process unemployment dollars “as quickly and efficiently as possible” while waiting for the federal government to step up, he said.
Economist Stephen Levy, director of the Palo Alto-based Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, said that Newsom’s biggest focus ought to be on stemming coronavirus’ spread. Until cases are consistently low, full economic recovery is impossible, Levy added.
“He can’t mint money, and we don’t have the budget resources to put up four hundred or six hundred dollars ourselves,” Levy said. “He has really limited options besides getting the pandemic under control — and he’s kind of limited there, too.”
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Author: Fiona Kelliher