California has now reported 5 million coronavirus cases, a serious total that underscores the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic during its nearly two-year turmoil across the state.
The milestone comes at a somewhat promising, though still precarious, time in the explosion. The daily numbers of newly recorded infections and of those hospitalized with the disease have declined in recent weeks, a welcome trend entering the heart of the fall-and-winter holiday season.
But officials have long circled this winter on their cautious calendar, warning that the combination of holiday travel, colder weather and growing indoor gatherings could threaten to fuel the still-powerful pandemic.
“I recognize the fear that many of us have as we now enter the winter as we enter a season where – if past is a prologue – we should anticipate an increase in cases, an increase in hospitalizations, an increase in people in ICUs ., and tragically the likelihood, if we don’t take this moment seriously, is an increase in the number of people who will lose their lives, ”Governor Gavin Newsom said this week.
As of Thursday morning, California’s reported number of coronavirus cases was 5,001,249, according to state data compiled by The Times.
Included in that total are nearly 253,000 “probable” cases – those that have been identified by an antigen test but have not yet been confirmed by a more time-consuming and accurate PCR examination.
However, the overall figure means that 5 million Californians were once positive about coronavirus infection.
The cumulative number of California cases that have been definitively confirmed, at around 4.75 million, is easily the highest in the nation – not surprisingly, as the Golden State has more than 39 million inhabitants.
Adjustment for population shows a different picture, however. During the pandemic, California reported approximately 12,775 coronavirus cases per 100,000 population, the 10th lowest of any state, the Times data show.
By comparison, eight states – North Dakota, Alaska, Tennessee, Utah, Wyoming, South Dakota, South Carolina and Florida – have recorded rates that exceed 18,000 cumulative cases per 100,000 residents.
The rate at which California’s count of cases grew accelerated especially during the Delta coronavirus surge, which hit over the summer.
California hit the 3 million case mark in mid-January. Nearly seven months later, in early August, the state reached 4 million cases.
Adding an additional million confirmed and probable cases took only 3½ months.
But there are signs that the pandemic has lost some steam in California. Over the past week, the state has reported an average of about 4,800 new coronavirus cases a day – less than 22% of the level seen two weeks ago, Times data show.
Hospitalizations, too, tend to go down. The number of coronavirus-positive patients hospitalized statewide on Wednesday was 3,409, a decrease of 28% since the beginning of October.
Even more promising is that the downward trend continued even after Halloween. Last year’s holiday, though much more limited and measured than normal, helped feed what would later swell into the worst wave of the pandemic during the winter.
“We’re now about 2½ weeks away from Halloween, and we’re glad we didn’t see an increase in cases we saw after the holiday last year,” Barbara Ferrer said Thursday.
Several factors probably contributed to that, she said during a briefing.
“The choice made by so many families to vaccinate everyone eligible has probably had the biggest impact on safety this year. And we know that many families have also made choices about how they celebrated that considering the safety of both their own and others’ households,” said Ferrer. “We thank everyone for taking steps to make the holiday safe, and as Thanksgiving approaches, we hope that similar attention to layered protections will once again enable us to come together without creating a risk for increased delivery.”
However, officials strike a cautious tone. Some other areas of the country have recently seen sharp increases in coronavirus transmission – a possible warning sign as the weather turns and the holidays are approaching.
As Newsom said during a briefing on Tuesday: “This virus, this disease, is not taking off the winter. It’s coming back in force, and you see it everywhere in this country. You see it in the Dakotas. You see it in Colorado. You see it in New Hampshire, Vermont. You see it all over the world. “
Federal figures underscore the challenge other states are currently facing.
Over the past seven days, California has reported 94.6 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 population – the ninth-lowest rate of any state, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
By comparison, six other states – Minnesota, Michigan, New Mexico, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Wisconsin – recorded case rates over the past week that were at least four times higher than that of California.
Health officials generally agree that California is unlikely to face a winter coronavirus resurgence on the scale of last year, largely because of how many residents have been vaccinated. More than 70% of all Californians have received at least one vaccine dose.
However, experience elsewhere – even in highly vaccinated states like New Hampshire and New Mexico – shows how easily the coronavirus can be cured.
This is all the more important, officials say, for unvaccinated residents to receive their shots, and for those eligible for acceleration to do the same.
“As the governor said and every fan of ‘Game of Thrones’ knows: Winter is coming. So we have to be prepared,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Wednesday. “We should know where we are. I want to acknowledge how difficult and confusing this moment is. The colder temperatures and increased time spent indoors always facilitate the spread of viruses, including COVID-19. “
Times collaborator Sean Greene contributed to this report.