SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Despite a statewide uptick in new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, California officials on Tuesday gave seven counties the green light to further their reopening efforts.
In a weekly update of the state’s four-tiered reopening system, the state’s top doctor and Governor Gavin Newsom announced that while several San Francisco Bay Area counties continued to make progress, Los Angeles has yet to see sufficient improvement in its battle with the novel coronavirus. While 29 counties have been able to advance out of the purple — “widespread” — tier since the system debuted eight weeks ago, the state’s most populous will remain mired in the most restrictive zone until at least mid-November.
California Health and Human Services chief Mark Ghaly noted the latest update leaves just 15% of the state’s 58 counties in the bottom tier and claimed the reopening scheme is undoubtedly working.
“Counties are moving through, are beginning to see some increased openings of various sectors and increasing the occupancy of those sectors,” Ghaly told reporters.
Though counties like Marin, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Mendocino improved their standing and overall no counties were downgraded, there are growing signs the coronavirus could be making another surge in the state of 40 million.
Statewide hospitalizations have increased nearly 5% over the last two weeks and the state’s seven-day positivity rate — the number of positive cases among residents receiving Covid-19 tests, a key indicator of community spread of the virus — crept above 3% over the weekend for the first time in nearly a month. On Tuesday, counties reported 3,188 new cases and 2,334 total hospitalizations.
Newsom called the increases “modest” and reiterated the state continues to have enough hospital beds and other resources to stay ahead of another potential outbreak. He added officials are keeping a close eye on the totals in anticipation of infections increasing during the holiday season.
“You’re seeing modest increases,” Newsom acknowledged. “We’re monitoring this, we’re watching this closely.”
California — the nation’s most populous state — has held the title of most confirmed cases since overtaking New York in July. But the Golden State could soon shed the unpleasant claim: according to Johns Hopkins University, California still leads with 911,000 cases but is being trailed closely by Texas with 898,000 cases.
A surge in cases and hospitalizations tied to “pandemic fatigue” has forced Texas officials to seek federal relief, while the city of El Paso has implemented a nightly curfew and a temporary hospital.
Florida is third nationwide with 786,000 cases while New York (496,000) and Illinois (387,000) round out the top five.
Newsom also announced Tuesday that Washington state, Oregon and Nevada are joining California’s coronavirus vaccine workgroup. Wary of the possibility the Trump administration may rush approval for a vaccine, the states claim they will have a panel of public health experts independently review any product approved by the FDA before making it available to the public.
“We believe in science, public health and safety,” said Washington Governor Jay Inslee. “That is why I am pleased that Washington is joining California and other western states in this effort. Any Covid vaccine must be guided by the expertise of scientists and medical professionals and that’s just what this workgroup will do.”
Last week Newsom hinted a potential vaccine wouldn’t be available by the end of the year and that the first batch would be reserved for first responders and at-risk residents. California has submitted its own distribution plan to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Newsom said the state is reviewing vaccines being developed by Pfizer and Moderna.
Newsom said the goal isn’t to delay distribution but rather to engage the world’s brightest doctors and scientists before handing out a new vaccine to millions of people. He said the state is continuing to collaborate with the CDC in the meantime.
“We would be I think foolhardy not to take advantage of some of the world’s — not just the country’s — leading experts in all of these areas and not bring them to the fore,” said the Democratic governor.
Meanwhile in Los Angeles where over 7,000 have been killed by the virus, officials are striving to make rapid testing more readily available to first responders and schoolchildren.
The city, county and the University of Southern California launched a pilot study Tuesday regarding the use of so-called rapid antigen tests, which can be conducted via paper strips and produce results within minutes. Researchers hope the tests can help districts quickly identify infected students or teachers and prevent schoolwide outbreaks.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said the tests are a potential “gamechanger” in the county’s ongoing quest to reopen schools.
“Los Angeles never shies away from a challenge, and we are tapping into our trademark creativity, our innovative spirit, and our strong partners with USC and the county to advance groundbreaking research, prevent the spread of this virus, and save lives,” the mayor said in a statement.