California lifts regional stay-at-home orders as ICU crowding eases

California health officials ended the state’s regional stay-at-home order on Monday, saying the latest projections for intensive care unit capacity allowed the restrictions to be lifted.

The orders applied to the Southern California, San Joaquin Valley and Bay Area regions, which encompass more than 90% of the state’s population of 39 million people. The four-week ICU projections for these areas show enough capacity to exit the order, according to the California Department of Public Health.

All counties now return to the state’s tier-based system, which places each county into color-coded tiers that indicate which activities and businesses can open up based on local case rates and test positivity.

The majority of the state’s 58 counties are in the strictest, or purple tier. Individual counties, however, have the authority to set their own restrictions and can choose to keep the stricter restrictions in place.

“California is slowly starting to emerge from the most dangerous surge of this pandemic yet, which is the light at the end of the tunnel we’ve been hoping for,” said California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly.

“Seven weeks ago, our hospitals and front line medical workers were stretched to their limits, but Californians heard the urgent message to stay home when possible and our surge after the December holidays did not overwhelm the health care system to the degree we had feared.”

The ICU capacity projections are based on four factors: current estimated regional ICU capacity available, a measure of current community transmission, current regional case rates and the proportion of ICU cases being admitted, according to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

The state has not released how it specifically calculates the ICU capacity projections. The Bay Area region is currently reporting 23.4% ICU capacity but it remained under the stay-at-home order because of a four-week projection of decreased hospital bed availability.

The worst-hit regions of San Joaquin Valley and Southern California are currently reporting 1.3% and 0.0% ICU availability, respectively.

Order was instituted as cases surged

The regional stay-at-home orders were instituted in early December as Covid-19 cases began to surge. The order went into effect if ICU capacity dropped below 15% in one of five regions the state is divided into: Northern California, Bay Area, Greater Sacramento, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

The Southern California and San Joaquin Valley regions have been under the state order since December 6 and the Bay area since December 17. The mandate, aimed at slowing the spread of Covid-19, instructed residents to stay home as much as possible and not mix with other households. It closed hair salons, museums, movie theaters, and restricted restaurants to takeout or drive-thru service.

The Sacramento region exited the order on January 12 and the Northern California region never entered the order.

On December 1, the state reported 9,365 patients hospitalized with Covid-19. By January 1, hospitalizations were past 21,000, peaking on January 6 with 22,853. Since then, hospitalizations have dropped with 18,638 reported on Saturday, below the 14-day average of 21,113. Correspondingly, the number of available intensive care unit beds had dropped from 1,810 on December 2 to 1,116 beds on Saturday.

A letter from the California Restaurant Association to its members had indicated that the order would be lifted Monday. The association, which shared the letter with CNN, said it had been notified of the plan Sunday evening by the governor’s office.

Cases are declining

New cases in the state are on the decline. The most recent data shows 24,411 new infections were reported Saturday but that is below the 14-day average of 31,299. On January 1, there were 53,341 cases reported and the 14-day average then was above 40,000.

CNN affiliate KABC reported that an Office of Emergency Services spokesman said in a statement that the state Department of Public Health will provide a formal update on the regional stay-at-home order on Monday.

“We see promising signs that California is slowly emerging from the most intense stage of this pandemic,” the statement said, according to KABC.

The stay-at-home orders include restrictions on businesses, including a ban on outdoor dining. The restaurant industry has bitterly opposed the orders and has sued to stop them. A coalition of Bay Area wineries sued over the outdoor dining restrictions earlier this month and the restaurant association sued Los Angeles County in November over its outdoor dining restrictions.

A spokesman for the CRA told CNN Monday that the association does not have any additional comment at this time about the possible lifting of the stay-at-home orders.

And while new cases may be declining, the death toll in California remains high. The state reported its highest single day of deaths on Thursday with 764, above the 14-day rolling average of 499.

Los Angeles Times reported that it is unclear whether stay-at-home orders in Los Angeles County, where hospitals continue to be overwhelmed, will be lifted when the order is canceled.

Los Angeles County has been the epicenter of the virus’ surge in the state. More than 6,800 people have died in the county since December 1 and more than 1 million of the state’s 3 million cases are in the county.

About 1 in 10 people have been confirmed to have contracted the virus in Los Angeles County but health officials speculate the actual number may be as high as 1 in 3.

Across the US, Covid-19 infections kept soaring this weekend, as did the death toll. As of early Monday, more than 419,000 people have died from Covid-19 in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University.

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