LOS ANGELES - California has become the first state to record more than 3 million known coronavirus infections.
That’s according to a tally Monday by Johns Hopkins University. The grim milestone wasn’t entirely unexpected in a state with 40 million residents but its speed was stunning.
California only reached 2 million reported cases on Dec. 24. The count is also far ahead of other large states, such as Texas. California also has seen more than 33,600 deaths due to COVID-19.
A caseload surge that began last fall has strained hospitals. Although there’s been a slight downward trend, officials warn that could reverse when the full impact from holiday gathering transmissions is felt.
The death rate from COVID-19 in Los Angeles County — the nation’s most populous and an epicenter of the state pandemic — works out to about one person every six minutes.
On Sunday, the South Coast Air Quality Management District suspended some pollution-control limits on the number of cremations for at least 10 days in order to deal with a backlog of bodies at hospitals and funeral homes.
"The current rate of death is more than double that of pre-pandemic years," the agency said.
On average, California has seen about 500 deaths and 40,000 new cases daily for the past two weeks. Although hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions remained on a slight downward trend, officials have warned that could reverse when the full impact from transmissions during Christmas and New Year’s Eve gatherings is felt.
"As case numbers continue to rise in California, the total number of individuals who will have serious outcomes will also increase," the state health department said in a statement Monday.
Adding to concerns, California is experiencing new, possibly more transmissible forms of COVID-19.
The state health department announced Sunday that an L452R variant of the virus is increasingly showing up in genetic sequencing of COVID-19 test samples from several counties.
The variant was first identified last year in California and in other states and countries but has been identified more frequently since November and in several large outbreaks in Northern California’s Santa Clara County, the department said.
Overall, the variant has been found in at least a dozen counties. In some places. testing has found the variant in a quarter of the samples sequenced, said Dr. Charles Chiu, a virologist and professor of laboratory medicine at the University of California San Francisco.
However, not all test samples receive genetic sequencing to identify variants so its frequency wasn’t immediately clear.
However, health officials said it was linked to a Christmas-time outbreak at Kaiser Permanente San Jose that infected at least 89 staff members and patients, killing a receptionist. The outbreak has been blamed on an employee who visited the hospital emergency room wearing an air-powered inflatable Christmas tree costume.
The variant is different from another mutation, B117, that was first reported in the United Kingdom and appears to spread much more easily, although it doesn’t appear to make people sicker.
That variant has already shown up in San Diego County and Los Angeles County announced over the weekend that it had detected its first case.