Coronavirus U.S.

California orders 5,000 more body bags as virus runs rampant

Situation severe and start of vaccination in state has come too late to stem third wave

An ICU nurse receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in Los Angeles, California, on Monday. Record coronavirus cases have left the county of 10 million people with fewer than 100 ICU beds available.
An ICU nurse receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in Los Angeles, California, on Monday. Record coronavirus cases have left the county of 10 million people with fewer than 100 ICU beds available.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LOS ANGELES • California officials have ordered thousands of extra body bags as record coronavirus cases left Los Angeles with fewer than 100 hospital intensive care beds available for a county of 10 million people.

The situation has grown severe across southern parts of California, which was praised for its response at the start of the pandemic in spring, but has seen Covid-19-related hospital admissions soar sixfold since mid-October.

Deaths in the United States have passed the grim milestone of 300,000, with more than 16.7 million cases across the nation and over 248,000 infections and 3,102 deaths on Tuesday alone.

Beyond Los Angeles, the health authorities have sounded the alarm in nearby Ventura and Riverside counties, operating with 99 per cent and 100 per cent of intensive care unit (ICU) capacity used up respectively. Ambulance waits of up to five hours, before patients can be transported to crowded hospitals, have been reported.

"We just had to order 5,000 additional body bags... that should be sobering," said Governor Gavin Newsom on Tuesday, warning that the state is "in the middle of the most acute peak" of the disease.

"I don't want... to scare folks. But this is a deadly disease, and we need to be mindful of where we are. We are not at the finish line yet," he added.

Although vaccinations began in several California cities on Monday, the process is expected to come too late to stem the state's third wave of coronavirus.

With remaining ICU capacity across southern California down to just 1.7 per cent, some experts warned the lack of specialised care could trigger a spike in mortality.

"Many folks may be thinking this is just not anything to be really worried about because hospitals can just add more beds - the reality is every bed needs to be staffed by highly trained and skilled healthcare workers," said Los Angeles County public health director Barbara Ferrer.

"We don't have an endless supply of healthcare workers, and those that are here saving lives every day are exhausted."

Worsening matters, officials warned that daily cases and deaths could rise further as people continue to gather for parties, indoor religious services and youth sport competitions - all of which are technically banned.

Most of California's residents were placed under a new kind of lockdown last week, with 33 million residents banned from gatherings between households and for "non-essential" activities.

"The numbers are getting to be astronomical. People are going to die that don't need to die," Ventura County health officer Robert Levin told the Los Angeles Times.

California has recorded more than 1.6 million coronavirus cases and 21,000 deaths since the pandemic began.

Last week, Covid-19 killed an average of 163 people each day in California, up from 41 a month earlier.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2020, with the headline 'California orders 5,000 more body bags as virus runs rampant'. Subscribe