California Hospitals Cleared to Resume Surgeries After Coronavirus Halt

While Governor Gavin Newsom said progress has been made in flattening rates of infection of the novel coronavirus, he declined to set a date for reopening the world’s fifth-largest economy.

A screenshot of Governor Gavin Newsom giving his daily coronavirus press briefing.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Convinced coronavirus cases have stabilized, California Governor Gavin Newsom gave the green light Wednesday for hospitals to resume scheduling essential surgeries but refused wholesale relief for the state’s once-booming economy. 

The decision provides aid both for Californians whose surgeries have been postponed and the state’s over 400 suddenly cash-strapped hospitals that have been forced to care almost exclusively for Covid-19 patients. Newsom said the apparent leveling of serious cases sparked the first loosening of the March 19 shelter-in-place order, as have ongoing improvements in the state’s testing capabilities.

“Indicators show stability, particularly hospitalization numbers and intensive care numbers,” Newsom said. “Those are the two numbers that are the biggest focus of our attention, in addition to of course the tragic number of lives lost.”

During his daily pandemic briefing, Newsom and the state’s lead public health official said they expect hospitals to schedule so-called elective procedures — such as heart valve replacements and tumor removals — “thoughtfully” and “judiciously.” Newsom said the state will be closely monitoring to make sure the decision doesn’t have the unintended consequence of limiting hospitals’ ability to handle a new surge of Covid-19 cases.

“This is for us a significant health first-focused announcement today to begin to augment the stay-at-home order, but to do it with an eye on public health,” Newsom said.  

As outlined in the state’s six-point strategy, the full reopening of California hinges on enhanced testing and tracing capabilities. While the state has lagged in terms of testing and has only tested 465,000 of its 40 million residents, its pace is picking up thanks to help from private laboratories and the federal government.

Newsom said the state is now running an average of 16,000 tests per day with the goal of reaching 80,000 in the coming months. To help with the lofty target, a private company has agreed to supply the state 1.5 million kits once its serology test is FDA-approved, and Newsom claimed President Donald Trump has committed to sending 350,000 testing swabs by the end of next week.

The Democratic governor thanked Trump for taking his phone call and agreeing to alleviate the state’s test-kit shortage.

“That will go a long way in giving us all more confidence we can meet some of these testing goals, these stretch goals, and assuage concerns around those 251 sites that have reported a need for more swabs,” Newsom said. 

In order to get a grasp on the full scope of the pandemic’s spread, the state’s testing focus is shifting to rural areas and minority communities where kits haven’t been easy to find. Newsom says the state is in the process of opening 86 new testing sites in so-called “testing deserts” as well as training an “army” of 10,000 workers to prevent future waves by tracking and tracing infections.

Wednesday’s update comes as pressure to loosen the statewide stay-at-home order is building in areas where the virus has been largely contained.

A chorus of counties like Ventura, Riverside, San Luis Obispo, Stanislaus and El Dorado are asking the governor for permission to resume society.

Newsom acknowledged the pressure from local officials is “very real” but signaled their economies will remain shuttered indefinitely.

“I wish I could prescribe a specific date to say we can turn on the light switch and go back to normalcy,” Newsom said. “We have tried to make it crystal clear that there is no light switch and there is no date in terms of our capacity to provide the kind of clarity that I know so many of you demand and deserve.”

Nowhere is the economic toll more clear than in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the transit agency BART said Wednesday it is currently serving just 6% of its regular ridership. The agency said it will receive $251.6 million from the federal stimulus package passed in March to “stabilize its budget and continue to provide BART service running for essential workers.”

According to new information from public health officials, Silicon Valley is now believed to be the site of the nation’s first coronavirus death. Santa Clara County officials said Tuesday an autopsy revealed a woman died from the virus on Feb. 6, nixing the belief the first death date associated with the new coronavirus, scientific name SARS-CoV-2, was reported in Washington state on Feb. 29.

Newsom applauded the county’s efforts and said the state is requesting other coroners to go back and re-examine cases dating to December to “guide a deeper understanding of when this pandemic really started to impact California.”

While hospitalizations and ICU cases dropped slightly overnight, Newsom noted 86 people died. The state’s death toll stands at 1,354.

Los Angeles County continues to be hard hit by the pandemic, where health officials reported over 1,300 new infections Wednesday.

Officials also reported 66 new deaths, bringing the countywide death toll to 729.

So far 16,435 Angelenos have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Nine days ago, the total infected was just over 9,000.

While county health officials said they’re aware of the news out of Santa Clara County, LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said it is not possible to look at deaths in her county going back to early February.

“Even when we were watching what was going on in China back in January — we were all suspicious of whether or not we had cases circulating in a small enough number that wasn’t causing alarm,” said Ferrer. “In hindsight, we should have looked more carefully, particularly looking at deaths.”

Meanwhile, 100 homeless people have tested positive in an outbreak at the Union Rescue Mission shelter in downtown LA. Ferrer and health officials are investigating other positive cases at multiple shelters.

Overall 3,115 people have been infected at institutional or communal settings like jails, shelters, skilled nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities have seen 1,826 infected residents and 292 deaths — 40% of all deaths in LA County.

Despite Newsom’s concerns, Ventura and Orange counties have begun to relax their stay-at-home health orders for residents and reopening some businesses. Ferrer urged Angelenos to stay away from both, which share borders with LA County.

“We have a lot of illness in our county. We have high rates of people who are dying. We know that its best right now for us Angelenos to stay home, stay outside in your own yard,” said Ferrer. “Please don’t go driving to other beaches.”

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