The Mercury News Weekend

Cases smash monthly record

Nearly half of state’s 2.3 million 2020 infections diagnosed in December

- By Marisa Kendall and Evan Webeck Staff writers

As the pandemic’s most destructiv­e month yet came to a close Thursday, the toll it took on California became clear: Nearly half of the state’s infections this year occurred in December alone.

More than 1 million of the state’s 2.3 million total coronaviru­s cases were reported in the final month of 2020. That’s more than three times the previous monthly record of nearly 300,000 infections set in November. And as hospitals around the Bay Area run out of room, experts worry gatherings held on Christmas and the New Year’s holiday weekend will cause another, potentiall­y worse,

spike in January.

Dr. John Swartzberg, professor emeritus of infectious disease and vaccinolog­y with the UC BerkeleyUC­SF Joint Medical Program, called the latest COVID-19 data “absolutely horrible.”

“It’s very frightenin­g,” he said.

This summer, when a surge of new cases caused officials to raise the alarm and once again close huge swaths of the economy, monthly new cases peaked at 269,721 in July. In December, California experience­d the equivalent of more than three months of summer infections, and almost two months of deaths, in just 30 days.

County health department­s reported a record 439 deaths in California on Wednesday, and the state surpassed 25,000 total fatalities.

In response, San Fran

cisco on Thursday extended indefinite­ly the health order keeping much of its economy closed. People traveling to the city from outside the Bay Area must continue to quarantine for 10 days, and indoor gyms and personal care services, plus outdoor dining, museums and entertainm­ent centers, will remain shuttered.

Santa Clara County’s hospitals are “stretched to the limit,” with just 8% of intensive care unit beds open as of Wednesday, said Dr. Ahmad Kamal, the county’s COVID-19 director of health care preparedne­ss. On any given day, there are between 50 and 60 patients waiting for beds.

“What we are seeing now is not normal,” he said.

Dr. Marco Randazzo, an emergency department physician at O’Connor Hospital in San Jose and Saint Louise Regional Hospital in Gilroy, said their ICUs are full. Often, the only time an ICU bed opens up is when a COVID patient dies.

“This means that if you

are coming to the emergency department for an acute non- COVID-related emergency, you may experience significan­t delays in care because we simply don’t have the room,” Randazzo said. “Our resources are stretched thin, and health care workers are continuous­ly being exposed and becoming infected as they care for your loved ones.”

Like the rest of the state, the Bay Area was hit hard in the last month of 2020. More than 86,400 new cases were reported in Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties — compared with 27,381 in November and 26,379 in August. More than 450 people died in the Bay Area in December, surpassing the prior monthly record of 307 deaths in September.

Swartzberg blames the dire December data partly on Thanksgivi­ng gatherings that spread COVID-19 between households, as well as colder weather tempting people to gather

indoors, where the virus spreads more easily.

But the ex ponential growth of the virus also plays a big role in explaining December’s numbers. When the pandemic began, and again when cases surged in the summer, health officials shut down the economy in order to “flatten the curve” but then reopened it before transmissi­on reached zero. That means each new surge has been worse than the last, because it started from a baseline of more accumulate­d cases. So it’s logical the current winter surge would be the worst of all, Swartzberg said.

“Your chance of encounteri­ng someone with COVID now is just so much greater than it was on Oct. 1 and tremendous­ly greater than it was on June 1,” he said.

And it’s possible a mutated, extra- contagious strain of COVID-19, reported this week in San Diego County, helped inflate the December numbers. Tests showed the 30-year

old resident who contracted the strain — becoming California’s first confirmed case of the variant — hadn’t traveled recently.

“It’s clearly circulatin­g here in the United States, and we don’t know how long it has been,” Swartzberg said. “But you could see where that would just throw gasoline on the fire.”

On average, one California­n died every seven minutes in December, and more than 1,400 new cases were diagnosed every hour. More than 6,200 California­ns lost their lives to the virus throughout the month.

Only the devastatin­g outbreaks in New York and New Jersey in the spring resulted in deaths on a similar scale. More than 21,000 people died of COVID-19 in April in New York, and nearly 7,000 died in New Jersey during the same month.

By the end of December, more than 20,000 California­ns were hospitaliz­ed with severe cases of the virus, more than double the number at the start of the month.

At San Jose’s Regional Medical Center, where the intensive care unit is full, there were 124 COVID-19 patients as of Thursday morning — up about 25% from two weeks ago, said spokeswoma­n Sarah Sherwood. Even though the hospital hired several new nurses and added new ICU beds to the emergency room, there’s a wait for new patients to receive care. So far, wait times remain under an hour. And Sherwood stressed that people experienci­ng a stroke, a heart attack or other emergency symptoms should come in right away.

Despite December’s grim numbers, hospital staffers are upbeat since they began receiving the first doses of the new COVID-19 vaccine, Sherwood said.

“I have seen a difference in mood,” she said. “There’s a feeling of hope and people are, our employees are, really relieved.”

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