Coronavirus: California could see 89% increase in hospitalizations next month, health official warns

Dr. Mark Ghaly flagged “early signs” that state’s progress has shifted slightly: hospitalizations could rise from 2,578 patients now to 4,864 by late October

Dr. Mark Ghaly, Secretary of California’s Health and Human Services Department, addressed the state’s COVID-19 response in a Zoom broadcast Tuesday. (YouTube. July 21, 2020)

Vallejo Times-Herald, By Fiona Kelliher, September 25, 2020

California could see an 89% increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations by the next month if coronavirus infections continue apace, a top state health official warned Friday.

Short-term forecasts indicate that hospitalizations could skyrocket from the 2,578 patients now hospitalized to 4,864 by this time in October, said California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly during a Friday press briefing — a signal that Californians should stay vigilant as more parts of the economy open up.

“As we see these trend lines, which have been coming down and flattening, look like they’re coming up … we want to sound that bell for all of you,” Ghaly said. “We want to see us respond as a state to those slight increases.”

Although Ghaly praised the state’s “significant progress” in infection and hospitalization rates since mid-July — when a peak 7,170 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized — he flagged early signs that the state’s progress has begun to shift. Starting in mid-September, Ghaly said, infection rates have risen slightly across the state, while coronavirus-related emergency room visits have also climbed.

Although overall lower case rates have allowed many counties to reopen businesses within Gov. Gavin Newsom’s reopening system, the virus’ reproduction number has surpassed 1.0 in some regions, Ghaly said. Twenty-five of California’s 58 counties remain in the red or “widespread” tier, with another 19, including most of the Bay Area, in the purple or “substantial” tier, allowing for movie theaters and restaurants to welcome customers indoors at limited capacity.

Keeping case rates low means that the virus’ reproductive value has less of a dramatic effect on potential hospitalizations, Ghaly said — especially with the double whammy of flu season looming. But with more cases overall, “you can see how quickly case rates go up and how quickly that creates additional pressure on our hospitals,” he added.

Statewide, however, there was little change in the seven-day average of new infections and fatalities reported as of Friday. Both figures remained lower than where they were two weeks ago and significantly below their respective peaks. The 3,274 new cases and 85 deaths reported by county health departments Thursday kept each seven-day average about even — just over 3,500 cases and just below 84 deaths per day over the past week, according to data compiled by this news organization.

Ghaly’s hospitalization projection, meanwhile, would put the state on par with its Aug. 19 hospitalizations, when 4,890 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 — more than 2,000 people fewer than the state’s peak a month earlier.

“As Californians we’ve done a good job to avoid those situations, and we want to keep our guard up,” Ghaly said.

Evan Webeck contributed to this report.