California admits to COVID data weakness

Gaby Solorio receives a COVID-19 rapid test at Greater St. Paul Church in downtown Oakland on January 4, 2022. Martin do Nascimento/CalMatters

Just how serious is California’s COVID-19 situation?

On the one hand, Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s top public health official, on Wednesday extended California’s indoor mask mandate — which was set to run through Jan. 15 — through at least Feb. 15, citing a surge in COVID cases that has pushed the state’s test positivity rate to a whopping 21.3%.

On the other hand, Ghaly acknowledged that the state lacks critical data on just how severely the virus, especially the omicron variant, is affecting Californians. He noted that around 8,000 of the state’s approximately 51,000 hospital patients on Wednesday morning had tested positive for COVID. But, Ghaly said, it’s unclear how many of those patients were hospitalized because of COVID versus how many were admitted for different reasons and ended up incidentally having COVID.

  • Ghaly: “That distinction … is really important and helps us not only help manage the staffing challenges within some of the hospitals, but also project out the need for additional ICU capacity. … And as we see an increasing number of fully vaccinated individuals, boosted individuals, admitted to the hospital with incidental COVID … I think we’re starting to see a sort of different approach to that.”

Indeed, as of Tuesday, roughly two-thirds of COVID-positive patients at hospitals run by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Services were admitted for something other than the virus. Marin County hospitals on Monday had a near-record high of 19 COVID patients — but at least 42% were incidental cases. And Berkeley is experiencing a “phenomenal” surge in cases, but only three residents at minimum have been hospitalized for COVID-19 in the past month.

Hospitalization data may be opaque, but staff shortages are clear.Thousands of police officers, firefighters and paramedics are in quarantine, straining critical public safety services. Unprecedented numbers of health care workers have been sidelined after testing positive for the virus, prompting some hospital departments to operate at half capacity and others to postpone elective surgeries. Ghaly said California has brought in more than 1,800 out-of-state health care workers to fill gaps at more than 150 facilities and is working to hire even more.

Although Ghaly emphasized that both he and Gov. Gavin Newsom don’t foresee future COVID-related shutdowns, they’re happening anyway. Courtrooms up and down the state are temporarily suspending jury trials, as CalMatters’ Byrhonda Lyons reports. The Los Angeles City Council has returned to virtual meetings, and Newsom cleared the way for state agencies to do the same in a Wednesday executive order. Some Sacramento restaurants are closing, and on Wednesday the Grammy Awards ceremony was postponed indefinitely.

But the Super Bowl, scheduled for Feb. 13 in Los Angeles, got an implicit go-ahead from Ghaly.

  • Ghaly: “I think Californians are excited to see that event occur, and the work is to make sure that as it is moving forward and planned, that the mitigation strategies that create safety around that event are in place.”

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