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California sees record-breaking COVID-19 deaths, a lagging indicator of winter surge

Rong-Gong Lin II, Luke Money, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES – California is continuing to see record-breaking deaths from COVID-19, a lagging indicator of the winter surge that is coming even as overall coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have flattened and started to slightly decline.

The state broke the record Thursday for most COVID-19 deaths in a single day: 736, surpassing the mark set on Jan. 15, when 700 deaths were reported. California is still averaging about 500 deaths a day over the past week, one of the worst such figures of the pandemic, but slightly lower than a week ago, when the state was averaging 534 deaths a day.

Los Angeles County recorded 246 deaths on Thursday; the average daily number of deaths has been at 200 or above for nearly two weeks. Because it takes weeks for infections to result in hospitalizations, and then more weeks before hospitalizations result in deaths, it is expected that deaths will continue to be high even as hospitalizations begin to decline.

Of nearly 36,000 cumulative COVID-19 deaths statewide, more than 10,000 have been reported since New Year's Eve, including more than 4,500 in L.A. County. The state's most populous county, which has tallied more than 14,600 deaths, accounts for roughly 41% of California's cumulative COVID-19 deaths, despite being home to only a quarter of the state's population.

Over the past 14 days, California has reported 18 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 residents, the ninth highest among all states, Times data show. Arizona has recorded the highest rate during that time, 30 deaths per 100,000 residents; the other states with worse rates than California were Alabama, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Nevada, West Virginia, Kansas and Arkansas.

California's woes come amid a national surge in deaths. More than 4,400 COVID-19 deaths were reported nationally on Wednesday, a single-day record, according to the COVID Tracking Project. More than 404,000 Americans have died in the pandemic, and it's possible the cumulative national death toll could hit between 465,000 to 508,000 before Valentine's Day, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

 

The loss of life from COVID has been so great the National Guard has been called in L.A. County to help overloaded hospital morgues by taking bodies to the county coroner's office for storage until funeral homes and mortuaries can process the backlog. Air quality officials have suspended monthly limits on the number of cremations to avoid a public health crisis. As of Friday, more than 2,700 bodies were being stored at hospitals and coroner's offices.

The current death rate is "more than double that of pre-pandemic years, leading to hospitals, funeral homes and crematoriums exceeding capacity, without the ability to process the backlog," the South Coast Air Quality Management District said this week.

During the most severe part of the first waves of the pandemic, L.A. County's daily COVID-19 death toll peaked at 50 deaths a day. This wave has been markedly worse, with the average daily death toll peaking at 241 for the seven-day period that ended on Jan. 14.

The chance that a person hospitalized for COVID-19 will die in Los Angeles County has doubled in recent months.

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