LOS ANGELES -- The number of coronavirus cases in California has surged past 3,000, and officials say the COVID-19 growth rate is such that it could overwhelm hospitals in the coming days and weeks.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump wrote Thursday in a letter to governors that the federal government is working on new standards for categorizing counties as high, medium or low risk for the coronavirus.
"There is still a long battle ahead, but our efforts are already paying dividends. As we enhance protections against the virus, Americans across the country are hoping the day will soon arrive when they can resume their normal economic, social, and religious lives," he wrote.
The letter is a further sign that Trump is eager to relax federal guidelines on school closures and limiting social gatherings in order to boost the stalled economy. Public health experts have warned that the president is moving prematurely and there's not enough information to show that the pandemic has been slowed.
Trump said the plan will involve "robust surveillance testing" to "monitor the spread of the virus throughout the country."
California's death toll stood at 68 as of midmorning Thursday, far fewer than the 285 deaths in New York, which has become the national epicenter of the coronavirus crisis. But officials said California needed to brace itself for far more cases and deaths.
San Bernardino County recorded 54 COVID-19 cases and two fatalities from the disease as of Thursday. The number of confirmed cases has tripled in less than a week; on Monday, there were only 17.
Two men -- a 50-year-old and 46-year-old -- died of the coronavirus this week. Both had underlying health conditions, according to the county. Acting County Health Officer Dr. Erin Gustafson said in a statement that the second death was a "sad reminder of the seriousness of this pandemic."
"At the same time, for all of us, it emphasizes the importance of staying at home when we can and practicing good hygiene and social distancing," he said.
In Riverside County, 107 COVID-19 cases were confirmed as of Thursday, an increase of 37 from the day before.
Eight people died this month because of the virus. All of those individuals were 70 or older and some had underlying health conditions, said county spokeswoman Brooke Federico. Seven of those deaths were in the Coachella Valley and one was in the mid-region of the county.
Statewide, more than 3,100 of those tested have been confirmed to have infections.
Public health officials emphasized that the actual number of people infected is almost certainly higher, but an accurate count is impossible because so few tests have been given.
(Los Angeles Times staff writers Phil Willon, Maura Dolan, Richard Winton and Sonali Kohli contributed to this report.)
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