The Mercury News Weekend
State's COVID deaths top 100K
Revelation of the grim statistic comes as California officials are set to end emergency declaration
It took three years and an infinite amount of heartache and upheaval for California to surpass a grim milestone this month, with more than 100,000 residents having died from COVID-19, officials say.
That's akin to the combined populations of Los Gatos, Menlo Park and Pleasant Hill disappearing in the span of three years.
While it's unclear where or when the virus claimed its 100,000th victim in California, the number became official on Thursday with the latest release of data we've become intimate with since the pandemic began:
• Total COVID-19 cases: 11,105,535.
• Total deaths: 100,187.
The somber reminder of the virus' deadly impact comes as California prepares to close the book on its pandemic state of emergency, even though COVID-19 is still responsible for the deaths of about 150 Californians each week. But three years into the pandemic, strong therapeutics, our immunity from previous infections and the power of vaccines that blunt severe illness have cut the death toll from its peak of about 600 a day in January 2021.
The country's most populous state is the first to cross the 100,000 mark in COVID-19 deaths, but it's far from suffering the stain of the highest death rate. Thirty-nine states had higher rates than California, which benefited from aggressive public health mandates and high vaccination rates. If the U.S. had California's death rate, about 282,000 fewer people would have died.
But even here, those deaths, and the consequent grieving, have been concentrated in some counties and regions, while others have been almost spared.
California's tiniest county, Alpine, with just over 1,000 residents, has yet to record any
official COVID-19 deaths — but that doesn't tell the whole story. Nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains just south of Lake Tahoe, Alpine has no health care facilities. So at least two Alpine residents who died of COVID-19 were recorded as Nevada deaths because they died in a hospital across the state line, said county Public Health Officer Richard Johnson.
Other rural counties were overcome by COVID-19 deaths. On the southern edge of the state in Imperial County, which is on the border with Mexico, the death rate from the virus is more than double the statewide rate, and four times higher than the Bay Area's.
“That's been the theme of the pandemic,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health. “The Bay Area's done better than California. California's done better the United States.”
With some of the state's most far-reaching mandates and a public that largely followed along, each of the Bay Area counties has fared better than the state as a whole, which has seen about 250 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 residents over the past three years. San Mateo County has the lowest death rate in the region, with just 96 deaths per 100,000. The highest is in Santa Clara County at 137, still well below the state average.
The country's death rate is around 350, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Altogether, the sixcounty Bay Area's total death rate is 128, just over one-third the rate in Los Angeles, the state's most populous county, which has recorded 35,000 COVID-19 deaths. Los Angeles County has the fourth-highest COVID-19 death rate of any California county at this point in the pandemic.
As California moves forward, it's often difficult to put into perspective the devastation that COVID-19 has wrought in three years. Cancer, for example, is responsible for the deaths of about 50,000 Californians every year. Alzheimer's disease kills about 16,000.
“The national flu mortality rate is about 10 deaths per (100,000 residents) per year, and a severe flu season is about 15,” Dr. Erica Pan, the California State Epidemiologist and director of the California Department of Public Health's Center of Infectious Disease, said at a public forum earlier this month. “You can see how dramatically higher COVID-19 is.”
Swartzberg remembers early in the pandemic when estimates of COVID's lethality varied wildly.
“People were wondering whether the death rate was 3%,” he said of estimates early in the pandemic as scenes of refrigerated trucks outside New York City hospitals became common. The death rate has now settled at just below 1%.
But disparities in health — obesity, diabetes, chronic lung disease and access to health care among others — are a major factor in why some regions of the state, such as Imperial County, have been hit harder than regions such as the Bay Area, Swartzberg said.
As the state dials down its pandemic focus, some experts believe that trend will continue.