Most Californians were under orders to stay at home from Sunday night, as US officials grappled with a holiday season surge in coronavirus cases that placed new pressures on the country’s healthcare system.
The new restrictions followed orders announced by California governor Gavin Newsom that would limit travel and commerce if capacity at intensive care units fell below 15 per cent in five regions of the state. As of Saturday, the central San Joaquin Valley area and the broadly defined Southern California region, which includes Los Angeles, had breached the limit.
San Francisco and some other Bay Area counties said they would voluntarily comply with the order beginning on Sunday evening.
California’s measures followed a series of record daily highs of coronavirus in the past week, with the US logging 224,831 new cases on Friday and 211,073 on Saturday. More than 101,000 were in hospital on Friday and Saturday, marking another record, according to the Covid Tracking Project.
Coronavirus cases have climbed across the US during the holiday season, prompting official pleas for Americans to stay at home until vaccines become available.
Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response co-ordinator, implored Americans to wear masks and follow distancing guidelines.
“This is not just the worst public health event; this is the worst event that this country will face, not just from a public health side,” Ms Birx told NBC News on Sunday.
Additional coronavirus cases were putting hospitals — which usually fill up to 90 per cent of their capacity during winter on routine cases — “at the breaking point”, Ms Birx added.
President Donald Trump, who held his first live campaign rally since he lost the elections over the weekend, has touted the imminent rollout of Covid-19 vaccines. But neither he nor many of his supporters wore masks at the well-attended event in Georgia, which has suffered a record number of new cases of the virus in recent days.
As of Saturday, the US had recorded 14,255,535 total cases of the virus, according to US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
California experienced a surge in coronavirus cases across the state to more than 1.3m as of Saturday, marking a 1.9 per cent increase from the previous day.
Grant Colfax, director of health for San Francisco, said the city was experiencing its “worst surge yet” of the virus. “It is stressing healthcare systems across the state of California and taxing our healthcare workers,” he said.
Mr Newsom’s measures require affected regions to stay at home “as much as possible” and limit the operations of certain businesses for a three-week period extending past the Christmas holiday. San Francisco’s order will extend into the new year, lasting until at least January 4.
Under Mr Newsom’s orders, retailers and shopping centres will be limited to 20 per cent of their capacity, and restaurants will only be allowed to offer food for delivery or pick-up.
Joe Manchin, Democratic senator for Virginia, accused Mr Trump of making light of the pandemic for political gain, telling NBC News on Sunday that he was “scared to death” of models indicating the US outbreak could double by April.
Secretary of health and human services Alex Azar said 40m doses of vaccine could be released by the end of the year, pending emergency approval from an FDA Advisory Panel due next week.
“What we’ve said is within 24 hours of FDA green lighting with authorisation we’ll ship to all of the states and territories that we work with. And within hours they can be vaccinating,” he told Fox News Sunday.
But even White House health experts caution the vaccines will come too late to mitigate the current surge. Robert Redfield, director of The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, warned last week that another 250,000 people could die by January, as millions of people disregarded guidelines to avoid travel and large gatherings during Thanksgiving celebrations last month.