California Stocking Up on Body Bags as Covid Deaths Hit New Highs

A sign reminding people to wear a mask stands along the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica, Calif., Dec. 8, 2020. A punishing fall that left hospitals struggling promises to continue into winter in California, with ICU capacity at or near zero in many counties. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Reacting to a devastating number of post-Thanksgiving deaths, California Governor Gavin Newsom said Tuesday the state is quickly stockpiling body bags and prepping emergency morgues to aid hospitals swamped with Covid-19 patients.

Adding another 142 on Tuesday, the Golden State’s average daily death toll has quadrupled from 41 to 163 in just the last month. Newsom said the alarming rate of death and spread of the coronavirus in the Golden State means hospitals will likely remain stressed until at least February.

During a press conference Tuesday, Newsom acknowledged this week’s jubilant vaccine news has been dampened by the fact that grim projections of a wave of deaths following Thanksgiving are becoming a reality in the nation’s most populous state.

“This is not the flu, this is not something to be trifled with,” Newsom told reporters. “We have to be mindful of how deadly this disease is.”

After consulting in recent days with county coroners, Newsom said the state will add 5,000 body bags to its stockpile and begin distributing them to places like San Diego and Los Angeles. In addition, Newsom said dozens of 53-foot refrigerated trailers are being prepped as makeshift morgues to store bodies if the surge continues.

Behind only New York and Texas, California counties have now reported over 21,000 Covid-19 related deaths. According to Johns Hopkins University, California now has 54 deaths per 100,000 residents and has overtaken Texas as the state with the most cases at 1.6 million and climbing.

Meanwhile the total of Californians hospitalized has jumped 68% over the last two weeks for a record high of over 14,000. Intensive care unit patients have similarly spiked 54% during the same stretch and Newsom said statewide ICU capacity sits at just 5.7%.

The numbers have state officials forecasting another brutal stretch for the health care system as the residual infections from the holidays pile up. According to modeling used by the state, the current surge could continue for another 45-60 days.

“Our modeling is becoming more and more accurate, alarmingly so,” Newsom said. “The projections are manifesting.”

As if the sobering numbers weren’t enough, California Health and Human Services chief Mark Ghaly drove home Newsom’s point and said things are about to get worse.

“The amount of people knocking on the front door with Covid to the emergency departments that need an in-patient hospital bed, that might need an ICU bed, are going to increase,” Ghaly said.

In one of his longer pandemic updates, Newsom flip-flopped between the good and bad developments in California’s grueling pandemic fight.

The Democratic governor celebrated the arrival of the first batch of vaccines and announced hospitals could receive over 2 million doses combined from Pfizer and Moderna by the end of the year. He then reiterated California is still fighting the third and “most challenging” wave of the pandemic and noted ICU capacity at some hospitals in the Central Valley dropped to zero over the weekend.

Newsom touted an ample supply of personal protective equipment, ventilators and beds, but acknowledged hospitals are running out of employees. As a result, the state has deployed over 500 health care workers in recent days and reached out to the federal government for additional staffing relief. 

While the first batches of vaccines will be earmarked for health care workers and vulnerable Californians, the state is in the process of crafting how and when the rest will get immunized. With plans taking shape, Newsom said the state is launching new public service announcements encouraging residents to get the vaccine once the state and counties decide it’s their turn.  

Until then, Newsom framed the ongoing spike in deaths as reason enough for Californians to abide by the latest round of shutdowns and wait out the winter at home.

“I want you to be there to experience the resurgence, this recovery — California’s comeback. It’s right in front of us,” Newsom predicted.

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