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California may face 5,000 coronavirus deaths a week if social distancing eases too soon, health official says

Rong-Gong Lin II, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

MILLBRAE, Calif. -- California faces 5,000 coronavirus deaths a week if the state's stay-at-home policies are relaxed too early, a health officer in the Bay Area said Tuesday.

"Some of the modeling is predicting -- at the peak -- up to 5,000 deaths a week throughout California," Dr. Chris Farnitano, health officer for Contra Costa County, told his Board of Supervisors. That would mean 600 deaths a week from the disease known as COVID-19 in the central San Francisco Bay Area, and 100 to 200 deaths a week in Contra Costa County, he said.

"We are still hopeful we can avoid (this scenario) if we don't relax our efforts to flatten the curve," said Farnitano, who shared the possible epidemic outcomes on the same day that six Bay Area counties extended and strengthened the nation's first coronavirus shelter-in-place order.

The news came as local health officials began revealing estimates of potential coronavirus death tolls in various counties Tuesday. There could be 2,000 to 14,000 deaths in Contra Costa County, and perhaps 1,000 deaths in Ventura County, health officers for both counties said. Last week, the city of San Jose released an estimate saying there could be 2,000 to 16,000 coronavirus deaths in Santa Clara County.

Dr. Robert Levin, health officer for Ventura County, said the number of coronavirus cases coming into hospitals could be a tsunami. In the last 21 years he's been tracking the data, the worst year for flu deaths came two years ago, with 49 fatalities -- a small fraction of the 1,000 deaths the coronavirus could bring to Ventura County.

"This is not influenza. This is much more serious," Levin said at a Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday. But he added that he hopes the stay-at-home order will significantly curtail the projected death toll.


There are promising signs for Contra Costa County, a suburban county northeast of Oakland with 1.2 million residents.

There are some early signs that new hospital cases of coronavirus are slowing, and that's important. If hospital cases double every six days, Contra Costa County could start running out of beds by late April, around the time coronavirus cases are expected to be the most intense.

Right now, hospital cases are doubling about every eight days.

If the county is able to slow the doubling to every 10 days, "we might have enough hospital beds to handle the surge," Farnitano said. The worst period for coronavirus cases is expected between mid-April and mid-May, he said.


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