Health secretary: “We do … cross the line”

California Health and Human Services Agency Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly speaks at a press conference in the California State Capitol following the first COVID-19 death in California. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

When it comes to coronavirus, “We are in a completely different place than the state of New York,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday. “I hope we continue to be. But we won’t unless people continue to practice physical distancing and do their part and we continue to meet this moment.”

It was a mixed message but also totally clear: On one hand, data show California’s aggressive shelter-in-place order is slowing the spread of the virus and buying time to prepare for a surge of patients. On the other hand, California can’t rest on its laurels. Even with everyone staying home, the number of COVID-19 patients is projected to eventually exceed hospital capacity.

Health Secretary Mark Ghaly illustrated the issue Wednesday with a graph projecting how many Californians would need to be hospitalized for COVID-19 in two scenarios: if we did nothing (blue) and if everyone continues to shelter in place (purple). The black line represents the current surge capacity of California’s health care system.

Graph from governor’s Wednesday press conference. Image via Twitter
  • What’s going on? The state’s current hospital surge capacity is 50,000 beds. But based on current models of the virus’ spread, an estimated 66,000 hospital beds would be needed by mid-May, Ghaly said. He added that does not necessarily represent the peak.
  • The pink and green points represent the number of Californians hospitalized over the past five days, but Ghaly said those numbers, although lower than projected, “should not give people immediate hope.”
  • Ghaly, pointing to the purple line: “I want to point out that even in this scenario, which is not the best-case scenario — this is if we do what we are doing today — we do cross this (black) line. Our effort is to move (the purple line) as far to the right as possible so that we can ensure that we have the capacity in our health care-delivery system, not just in hospital beds, but ICU beds and ventilators.”

He added, “We are always at risk of having actuals exceed the model, and we could cross this surge line sooner.”

The Bottom Line: As of 9 p.m. Wednesday night, California had 9,757 confirmed coronavirus cases and 213 deaths from the virus, according to a Los Angeles Times tracker. (These numbers are different from those of the state Department of Public Health, which are updated less often.)

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