LOS ANGELES -- The surge of the coronavirus in California over the last month started with an explosion of new cases, then moved into hospitals that rapidly filled with patients and is now beginning to bring an increase in COVID-19 deaths.
The question now is how big the wave will get before it crests.
June turned out to be a grim month in the COVID-19 battle, with people beginning to socialize again in ways that allowed the virus to spread rapidly across communities. Hospitals are being hit hard as patients who were infected weeks ago are now getting sick enough to require medical care. Officials are hoping public behavior changed toward the end of June and early July, but they won't know how that plays out for several more weeks.
California this week hit another troubling milestone Wednesday, recording the highest single-day COVID-19 death toll so far in the pandemic, with 149 fatalities reported, according to The Times' California coronavirus tracker. An additional 137 deaths were reported Thursday, which would be the second-highest daily death toll in the pandemic.
Experts say deaths are a lagging indicator of coronavirus spread and probably reflect exposures to the virus that occurred four or five weeks earlier. Los Angeles County reported 48 deaths on Thursday, 61 on Wednesday, 45 on Tuesday and 50 on Monday. That's substantially higher than the average of about 34 deaths per day reported in June.
Yet there are also a few signs of hope on the horizon.
Even as coronavirus-related hospitalizations reached all-time highs this week in L.A. County, they've been increasing at a slower rate in recent days, said Dr. Christine Ghaly, the county's director of health services. Hospitalizations in the county topped out at a high of 2,037 on Tuesday before dropping to 1,995 Wednesday -- a decline of 2%.
L.A. County officials began sounding the alarm last month, when the effective transmission rate of the coronavirus rose above 1, which means that, on average, each person infected with the virus transmitted it to more than one other person -- setting the stage for a dramatic worsening of the pandemic.
The transmission rate has now fallen back to around 1. That's good news, and if that rate remains steady, it's likely that Los Angeles County will have an adequate supply of hospital beds through early August.
The hope is that actions taken by state and local governments over the last few weeks -- closing down indoor dining and bars in most parts of California, requiring masks in public settings and shutting the beaches during the Fourth of July weekend -- have slowed the outbreak.