California is showing signs of a new surge of coronavirus cases, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday, warning of a potential third shutdown of businesses and more delays in school reopenings “if we're not vigilant.”
Coronavirus-related hospitalizations have fallen more than 20% in the past two weeks and just 2.8% of people tested each day in California were positive for the disease, the lowest rate since the pandemic began.
The improving numbers have prompted state officials to loosen restrictions in 13 more counties over the last few weeks, allowing more businesses to reopen while granting hundreds of waivers for elementary schools — mostly private — to resume in-person classes.
But the “reproduction number," a measure of how quickly the virus is spreading, is creeping up in the state's most populated areas. An “R number" greater than 1.0 indicates an infected person is spreading the disease to more than one other person, which translates to an increasing case rate.
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In the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area, the number increased to 0.95 in the first two weeks of September. In the lower portion of Southern California, which includes Orange, San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside and Imperial counties, the R number rose to 0.97.
And in upper Southern California — the coastal area from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo counties and inland Kern County — the number reached .02.
“This is, again, what science had predicted,” Newsom said. “If we go back to our original form, if we're not cautious, if we're not vigilant, if we're not wearing our masks, if we're not practicing social distancing, physical distancing and hand washing and hygiene, these numbers can start to tick back up.”
Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the reproduction number is “fraught with uncertainty” because it is an estimate based on a model that includes many factors.
“We have to be cautious and not overinterpret that,” Klausner said.
Plus, Klausner said it's difficult to know for sure how the coronavirus is progressing in California because of a lack of localized data. He said the state does not provide zip-code level data of the virus, as they do in New York City. He said it's like “operating with a blindfold on.”
Still, the Newsom administration plans to lift restrictions in more counties on Tuesday as part of its weekly update of the state's four-tier reopening plan. The state bases those decisions on county-level data that is a week old. The two factors considered are the rate of positive tests and per capita new cases. The R number is not part of the equation.
County governments don't have to loosen virus restrictions, but they face enormous pressure to do so once the state says they can.
In Los Angeles County, whose 10 million residents make it the nation's most populous county, local officials don't expect the state will loosen their restrictions Tuesday because its number of new cases per day still is too high. Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Monday it's important to remember there is “a lot of community transmission still going on.”
Among the latest is an outbreak at Long Beach State University that prompted officials at the commuter school to quarantine the several hundred students living on campus and halt in-person instruction for two weeks. University officials say five students tested positive so far after violating school rules and attending an off-campus event social gathering.
“We're in control of our destiny,” Ferrer said. “So I will say we need to be super cautious going into the fall and into the winter.”
A slow-down of business reopenings could not come at a worse time, especially for retailers who depend on the holiday shopping season for a majority of their annual sales, said Rex Hime, president and CEO of the California Business Properties Association, a group representing owners of commercial properties. He said the consequences of a third shutdown “will be devastating.”
“Business people have just been clobbered left and right, up and down, constantly,” he said. “I'm surprised we have businesses left in California.”
Newsom said his message to the business community and parents of school-aged children is to “abide by these mask mandates” as the state moves into the fall “and hopefully in the spring, where we have a vaccine, we can turn the page on COVID-19.”
State health officials are worried the surge of new coronavirus cases could coincide with the traditional flu season, which could strain the health care system since both have similar symptoms.
Newsom got a flu shot Monday during a news conference, urging others to do the same. Ferrer, the Los Angeles County public health director, said she had “no idea what flu season will look like." She said countries like Australia and Brazil — nations in the Southern Hemisphere that both had large numbers of virus infections — had a mild flu season, presumably because more people are following hygiene protocols to protect themselves from COVID-19.
Associated Press writer Christopher Weber contributed reporting from Los Angeles.