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California COVID-19 Cases Rise Sharply

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The numbers can start to wash over us. But this one is worth noting. This week, the United States registered more than 3 million cases of the coronavirus. States that moved to reopen early are leading the resurgence of the virus. Here's Dr. Anthony Fauci speaking earlier this week on "The Journal" podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE JOURNAL")

ANTHONY FAUCI: Some states went too fast. Some states went according to what the timetable was, but the people in the state didn't listen.

MARTIN: Hospitals in many cities are close to capacity, staff are overwhelmed. Dr. Bernadette Blount is medicine director for the Piedmont Midtown Columbus Regional Hospital in Columbus, Ga. Here's part of what she said this week during a Facebook live town hall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNADETTE BLOUNT: Social distancing was effective. And now that most of the states are open, it's becoming very scary. And we're running out of resources again.

MARTIN: This morning, we're going to look at two of the states seeing a surge. We'll start with California, which has more than 300,000 cases across the state. Many areas that had low numbers early on are now seeing a rise in positive tests and hospitalizations. Public health officials say it's partly because people just are not following the rules about masks and social distancing. Here's reporter Stephanie O'Neill.

STEPHANIE O'NEILL, BYLINE: To slow the spread of coronavirus, California issued the nation's first statewide stay-at-home order on March 19. And it worked. Dr. Bob Wachter heads the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. He says the shutdown saw elected officials, citizens, corporate and business leaders working together to flatten the curve.

BOB WACHTER: The entire state did unbelievably well from March through May. There was no good reason to think that California, which was a coastal state and lots of travel between here and Europe and Asia - diverse, lots of big cities - there was no good reason to think it wouldn't be pummeled the way New York was. So it was really an amazing success story.

O'NEILL: And then came the reopening in late May. Temperatures warmed. Californians, especially in the southern part of the state, filled the beaches. Friends and families celebrated Memorial Day together, many forgetting or defying pleas and orders to wear masks and to keep six feet apart.

WACHTER: I think we just opened up badly. Too many people heard the governor say, it's OK to begin opening up, and didn't hear the next part of the sentence, which is, we have to do it safely. And if we don't, we're going to see a surge the way states that didn't take it seriously are.

O'NEILL: By early July, new cases averaged more than 7,000 per day, prompting the state to launch a public service campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: A simple piece of fabric makes a big statement - I care.

O'NEILL: The number of Californians now testing positive is nearly 8% and climbing. Hospitalizations are also rising. More counties are nearing ICU bed capacity. Nurse practitioner Chris Negrete (ph) works at a small community hospital in north Los Angeles. He's been treating between two to six hospitalized COVID-19 patients per shift.

CHRIS NEGRETE: If they're sick enough where they need hospitalization, that's when they come to me. If they're sick and they're OK, they go home. Like, they don't need oxygen, the ER discharges them home. But anyone that needs to be hospitalized, that's when I come in.

O'NEILL: While his hospital isn't overwhelmed, it is bracing for a possible influx as nearby hospitals fill up. The state is now moving patients from areas where hospitals are hitting capacity to those with open beds. For instance, overcrowded Imperial County in the south is airlifting patients to Northern California.

A similar movement is happening among the state's prisons with hard hit southern facilities transferring inmates north. Now, about a third of San Quentin prison's population has tested positive after officials unknowingly shipped about two-dozen infected inmates to the prison. And as the virus spreads among inmates, essential workers also get exposed and take it back to their homes and communities.

NEHA NANDA: It's not a debate that numbers are skyrocketing

O'NEILL: Dr. Neha Nanda is an epidemiologist at the University of Southern California. She says, while a certain amount of spread is inevitable, it's personal behaviors that are essential to keeping the virus in check. Nanda says while people have little influence on certain factors, like how the virus mutates, they can make a difference by wearing masks and social distancing.

NANDA: It's a tall order for us because we are asking of ourselves to hardwire a practice and make it a part of our culture.

O'NEILL: Health professionals agree that changing the norm is key. And there's even a statewide masking order in place. But anyone who walks down a California street still sees people without masks and many others standing far closer than six feet apart.

For NPR News, I'm Stephanie O'Neill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.