LOS ANGELES -- A spate of new coronavirus infections is striking California's health care system, pushing covid-19 hospitalizations to levels not seen since early spring -- lending new urgency to efforts to tamp down transmission as a growing number of counties urge residents to wear masks indoors.
Statewide, the number of coronavirus patients in the hospital more than doubled in the last month, and the numbers have accelerated further in the last two weeks.
Even with the recent increase, though, the state's health care system is nowhere near as swamped as it was during the fall-and-winter surge. And many health experts are confident that California will never see numbers on that scale again, given how many residents are vaccinated.
But with the continued spread of the highly infectious delta variant, which officials fear could mushroom in communities with lower inoculation rates, the next few weeks are key in determining how potent the pandemic's latest punch may be.
The recent increases confirm that nearly everyone falling seriously ill from covid-19 at this point is unvaccinated.
"This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated. And so, if you care about getting back to normalcy once and for all, please get vaccinated," Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday.
About 52% of all Californians are already fully vaccinated.
Los Angeles County Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly said Tuesday that "the individual consequences of a choice not to get vaccinated can be dire for that person and his or her family and friends."
Ghaly said seeing a continued stream of covid-19 patients, the vast majority of whom are unvaccinated, triggers a range of emotions in health care workers who have long been on the front lines of the pandemic: frustration, sadness and "some level of disbelief that, after all of the pain and suffering that we've all seen ... there's still people who either don't believe it or don't believe that it can affect them."
The highest-risk Californians -- notably the elderly -- have been vaccinated at high rates. But the numbers drop off for younger segments of the population, and children under the age of 12 still aren't eligible to be vaccinated.
"I think sometimes the mentality is that people think, 'Well, I'm not going to get that sick. I'm going to be OK. I'm not going to die from covid; I'm young; I'm healthy,' " Ghaly said. "And I can tell you, hopefully that's the case, but that's not necessarily the case."
From June 22 to July 6, the daily number of covid-19 patients hospitalized in California increased from 978 to 1,228, a nearly 26% bump, state data show.
Over the past two weeks, the daily count swelled by an additional 76%, reaching 2,164 as of Monday.
As of Monday, 552 coronavirus-positive individuals were in ICUs statewide, more than double the total a month ago.
The latest numbers still pale in comparison to the peak of the last wave, when more than 21,000 covid-19 patients were packed into hospitals and nearly 4,900 people were in ICUs on some days.
Vaccines have the power to interrupt the chain of infections, hospitalizations and deaths, health experts have said.
"We have the tools to end this epidemic. It is up to us to utilize those tools to their maximum," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government's top infectious diseases expert, told a Senate committee Tuesday.
Out of the nearly 4.8 million people in Los Angeles County who had been fully vaccinated as of July 13, only 213 -- or .0045% -- later ended up hospitalized for covid-19.
In Ventura County, Health Officer Dr. Robert Levin said recent data shows that unvaccinated residents are 22 times more likely to be infected and hospitalized than the vaccinated.
Given the risk delta poses to those who have yet to be fully inoculated, 16 counties -- including Ventura, Santa Barbara, Sacramento, San Francisco and Santa Clara -- are now urging all residents, even those who have been fully vaccinated, to wear masks in indoor public settings such as grocery stores, movie theaters and retail outlets.
Los Angeles County is mandating that masks be worn in such settings.
All of those counties have gone beyond the guidance issued by the California Department of Public Health, which continues to advise that fully vaccinated residents are allowed to go mask-free nearly everywhere, though uninoculated residents must still mask up in public indoor spaces.
When asked about the possibility of issuing a new statewide mask mandate, Newsom said Tuesday that "if we can get more people vaccinated, that answer is unequivocal: We won't need it."
"We're not looking to do any physical distancing, any social distancing. We're not looking to close anything down. We're fully committed to getting our kids back in school, in person, for instruction," he said. "But we need to get more people vaccinated."
Few cities in California have considered mandating vaccines, even for state employees and health workers.
Pasadena will require all city employees to be vaccinated against covid-19 once the shots receive federal approval -- the first municipality in Southern California to take that step.
San Francisco already has ordered all workers in "high-risk settings," such as hospitals, nursing homes and residential facilities for the elderly, and jails, to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 15. All 35,000 city workers also will need to get vaccinated or risk losing their jobs once a vaccine has been formally approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
However, the vast majority of cities and counties have yet to adopt that tactic.
Dr. Muntu Davis, Los Angeles County's health officer, said last week that "we do recognize that not everyone is going to get vaccinated, and we accept that. It is a personal decision at this time."
But, he added, "If you make a decision to not get vaccinated, make sure you're doing everything you can to reduce your risk, especially at this moment."
TENNESSEE PACKS UP
Tennessee officials say they've finished deconstructing emergency covid-19 care sites in Nashville and Memphis.
According to a news release, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said this week that the sites finished serving their purpose of providing additional hospital capacity for covid-19 patients.
"Tennessee's alternate care sites provided our health care system with a margin of safety, and thankfully we did not need to open either site," Gov. Bill Lee said in a statement.
The Memphis site, which was the former home of The Commercial Appeal, was renovated to provide more than 400 beds. The Nashville site opened in late May and provided 67 beds.
"The Memphis and Nashville sites are models of what the public and private sector can accomplish working together," Emergency Management Agency Director Patrick Sheehan said in a statement.
All medical equipment and supplies from both sites have been returned to the agency's warehouse.
Information for this article was contributed by Faith E. Pinho and Rong-Gong Lin II of the Los Angeles Times (TNS).