California coronavirus death toll passes 200 as LA threatens to cut utilities for non-essential businesses

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LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Wednesday advised the Department of Water and Power to shut off utilities to non-essential businesses violating the city’s order to close, he said at an evening news conference.

The mayor’s order follows a crackdown from city prosecutors targeting businesses that have been deemed non-essential and yet have remained open for business and given more opportunities for the coronavirus to spread in Southern California.

“Slowing the spread of this virus and flattening the curve on new infections demands that we all do our part, and that’s the bottom line,” Garcetti said. “Yet still some non-essential businesses continue to operate, putting everybody at risk.”

Failure to comply with the city’s order — and ignoring warnings to do so — will result in a misdemeanor charge against the business and its utilities being shut off, the mayor warned.

“No one wants to take this step, and we won’t have to as long as you follow the rules and protect yourself and protect all of us,” he said.

The number of coronavirus cases in Los Angeles County rose dramatically Wednesday as officials reported more than 500 new cases, bringing the total number of people infected by the virus in the region to 3,518.

In their daily briefing, L.A. County officials also reported 11 new deaths, bringing the toll to 65. Nine of the 11 people who most recently died were over the age of 65, and seven had underlying health conditions. One person was between 18 and 40 years old, and another was between 41 and 65, said Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

The coronavirus has also spread to the most vulnerable populations in the county, with five homeless people testing positive for COVID-19, Ferrer said.

“Every day reporting these numbers is devastating,” she said. “I know it’s more devastating for the family and friends who have experienced this tremendous loss.”

Coronavirus cases statewide barreled past 9,500 — with nearly 1,000 new cases in 24 hours — and the death toll passed 200. Officials across California continue grappling with a shortage of supplies while rushing to prepare hospitals for what is expected to be a deluge of patients in the coming weeks.

After some local health officials recommended wearing face coverings when going out in public, Ferrer cautioned against using N95 and surgical masks, which are already in short supply for health care providers.

She said people could use a bandana or piece of fabric to cover their nose and mouth while out in public doing essential errands, but she warned: “Wearing a mask is not a shield.” It does not replace frequent hand washing and social distancing efforts.

Officials continued to urge residents to stay at home whenever possible and respect social distancing mandates when they must be in public. These efforts more than anything will help ensure there isn’t excessive strain on the county’s health care system, officials said.

Dr. Richard Benjamin, a semi-retired San Francisco Bay Area health officer, said staying indoors and wearing masks when on essential travel should be mandated as a “social contract” to protect the vulnerable and uninfected.

“I am increasingly convinced that the key to controlling community spread is through source control and containment,” Benjamin said. “While this is a relatively draconian measure, I think that we need to consider this as local, state and national health policy … that all people be required to mask … even if only using available bandanas.”

Orange County saw its biggest single-day increase in coronavirus infections to date Wednesday, as officials announced 107 new cases and three additional deaths. In all, 606 COVID-19 cases and 10 deaths have been confirmed countywide.

Amid the news, state officials announced that they will use the Fairview Developmental Center — a state-owned property in Costa Mesa — as an alternative care site to relieve stress on other regional hospitals.

Repurposing the center, which long housed adults with developmental and behavioral disabilities, is part of an overall effort to boost the number of hospital beds available statewide.

The facility will provide up to 1,100 new hospital beds that should be available this month, according to Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris, a Laguna Beach Democrat.

“Around the world and in other states, we have seen the horrific images and heard the heartbreaking stories of COVID-19 patients dying in hospital corridors because there are not enough beds,” she said in a statement. “We are aggressively preparing for California’s surge to try to avoid that nightmare.”

Cases of the virus in nearby Riverside County, meanwhile, jumped to 371, prompting county health officials to recommend that residents cover their noses and mouths when out in public. Thirteen people have died countywide after being infected by the virus, according to health officials.

“When the situation changes, the rule book changes,” Dr. Cameron Kaiser, Riverside County’s public health officer, said in a statement. “We’re seeing our numbers increasing even sooner than we predicted, and that means our strategy must change too. Covering your face doesn’t change the orders everyone must abide by to stay home as much as possible and maintain social distancing, but it’s an extra layer of protection that I think we need to add.”

In Northern California, the number of confirmed cases of the virus also continued to surge.

Sacramento County had 314 confirmed cases and nine deaths as of Wednesday, according to health officials. In the surrounding counties of Placer, Yolo and El Dorado, there have been more than 100 confirmed cases. Two people have died in Placer County, and one person has died in Yolo County.

Amid the pandemic, state officials are working on adding more hospital and intensive care unit beds to handle an expected surge in coronavirus patients in the coming weeks. There is concern that without action, the state could be short tens of thousands of hospital beds needed on the epidemic’s worst day.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said 774 patients with COVID-19 are in intensive care and 1,855 have been hospitalized across the state as of Tuesday.

A Los Angeles Times data analysis found that California has 7,200 ICU beds across more than 365 hospitals. In total, the state has more than 70,000 beds, with roughly one ICU bed for every 5,500 people in California. The governor has said the state expects to need 50,000 new hospital beds to meet a surge in patients around mid-May.

In Los Angeles County, 733 people who have tested positive for the virus have been hospitalized at some point during their illness. While there are still hospital beds available for sick patients, county health officials are anticipating additional coronavirus cases over the next three weeks that could strain the system.

“I want to reassure the public that the L.A. County hospital system, both public and private, is doing everything it can to be able to scale up and meet the projected demand, but I would reiterate the crucial importance of respecting those social and physical distancing guidelines so that we can flatten the curve and make sure there’s not excessive strain on the hospital system in the days and weeks to come,” said Dr. Christina Ghaly, director of the Los Angeles Department of Health Services.

Amid a rising number of infections, community clinics and health centers on the front lines continue to face a shortage of test kits and medical equipment they need to protect staff against the virus. Since the outbreak, community clinics and health centers in Los Angeles County have helped mitigate the spread of the coronavirus and prevented sick patients from overwhelming hospitals.

At St. John’s Well Child and Family Center, a nonprofit that operates 18 health centers and school-based clinics in Los Angeles and Compton, the situation has become so dire that patients have offered to sew surgical masks for the staff.

In a news teleconference Tuesday, St. John’s Chief Executive Jim Mangia said it wouldn’t be enough and called on the federal government to mandate the production of protective gear and masks for health care workers.

Community clinics that typically handle primary care, including checkups and prescribing patients insulin for diabetes or medicine for their high blood pressure, have been canceling their regular appointments and seeing more patients with symptoms that match those of COVID-19.

“By the end of this week, we will have run out of protective gear,” Mangia said. “We still don’t have the tests that we need in order to contain the spread and isolate our patients.

“We’re essentially doing makeshift front-line work,” he added.

State officials announced Wednesday that California’s public K-12 campuses are expected to remain closed for the remainder of the academic year in response to the escalating COVID-19 pandemic.

“To all of the moms, all the teachers, all the caregivers, I know how stressful this is, trust me,” Newsom said. “I know what we’re asking of you over the course of the next few months.”

California faces a peak of 5,000 coronavirus deaths a week if the state’s stay-at-home policies are relaxed too early, Dr. Chris Farnitano, a health officer for Contra Costa County, told his Board of Supervisors this week.

“We are still hopeful we can avoid (this scenario) if we don’t relax our efforts to flatten the curve,” he said.

With California Department of Motor Vehicles field offices remaining closed to the public, the agency said Wednesday that residents 70 and older who have expiring driver licenses will receive a 120-day extension in the mail in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.


(Times staff writers Luke Money, Sonali Kohli, Howard Blume, Patrick McGreevy and Kailyn Brown contributed to this report.)


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