(CNN) — The weekly tallies of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the United States have never been higher, and state officials are warning of more alarming patterns following the holiday season.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said the state was seeing a “real and significant increase in cases and our positivity rate from people’s gatherings around the holiday.”
“This surge that we’re in right now is at least twice the rate, the seriousness, of the previous surges that we have seen,” the governor said Friday. “This is our most dangerous time.”
Colorado’s state epidemiologist, Dr. Rachel Herlihy, on Friday warned of “early signs” of a rise in COVID-19 cases. “We are starting to see the impact of the holidays show up in our data,” she said. Health experts believe about one in 105 residents are currently contagious, Herlihy added.
Health officials are also concerned Wednesday’s storming of the US Capitol may have consequences for the pandemic.
The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Friday that the riot would likely be a “surge event” that will have “public health consequences.”
“You had largely unmasked individuals in a non-distanced fashion, who were all through the Capitol,” Dr. Robert Redfield told the McClatchy newspaper group. “Then these individuals all are going in cars and trains and planes going home all across the country right now.”
“So I do think this is an event that will probably lead to a significant spreading,” he added.
In the nine days since the start of 2021, the US has recorded more than 2 million new COVID-19 cases and 24,000 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
The nation has averaged about 247,200 COVID-19 cases a day over the last week as of Friday — an all-time high, and more than 3.7 times greater than a summertime peak set in late July, Johns Hopkins data shows.
And the country has averaged 2,982 deaths a day over the last week — the highest figure of the pandemic, according to Johns Hopkins. This week also saw the first time the US reported more than 4,000 coronavirus deaths in a single day, on Thursday.
Hospitalizations, meanwhile, have been pushing some facilities and medical staffs to their limits. Some 131,889 COVID-19 patients were in US hospitals on Friday — the third-highest figure recorded, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project.
California is struggling
California especially has been struggling with brutal surges in cases and hospitalizations.
And the daily death rates there have been so overwhelming, some California hospitals’ morgues are full, and coroners who’ve been asked to help with storage until funeral workers can get them also are running out of room.
So, the state has sent 88 refrigerated trailers to hospitals and counties to give them the space they need, officials said Friday.
Los Angeles County — the most populous county in the nation — has been averaging a Covid-19 death roughly every eight minutes, city Mayor Eric Garcetti said this week. On Friday, county health officials reported the most Covid-19 deaths ever reported there in a single day: 318.
The county’s hospitals are “putting ICU patients in unusual places in the hospital just to find room for them,” Dr. Anish Mahajan, chief medical officer at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, told CNN Saturday.
Mahajan said with hospitals already this stretched, he is terrified to think about the kind of surges Christmas gatherings may bring.
“It takes two to three weeks for patients to get sick enough to need the hospital after they’ve gotten the virus, and Christmas was only two weeks ago, and we’re already full,” Mahajan said.
Already in that county, because hospitals are strained, ambulance crews have generally been instructed not to transport a patient in cardiac arrest if they can’t first be resuscitated in the field.
Overwhelmed funeral homes are sharing hearses
In Montebello, just outside Los Angeles, the headquarters of two large funeral home chains paint a picture of weariness and despair.
At Guerra & Gutierrez Mortuaries, owner Richard Gutierrez says his six mortuaries usually would handle about 28 services a day before the pandemic. They now are running about 56 daily — about 70% of them for victims of coronavirus.
At the Continental Funeral Home just a few blocks down Beverly Boulevard, owner Magda Maldonado stood Friday in front of a freezer trailer that she’d recently bought to store dozens of bodies.
She said she feels stress grating her insides. Beyond all the people they’re serving, both she and Gutierrez are having to turn dozens of grieving families away.
And because of the crushing demand and government pandemic-era restrictions on gatherings, they’re not able to provide normal service for the big working class, Hispanic, Catholic families that they tend to serve — with a prayer vigil, a Mass and a wake spread over two days. Montebello is a city whose population is about 77% Hispanic or Latino.
“I am overwhelmed. I am with anxiety disorder now, because of this,” Maldonado said. “My employees are overwhelmed and tired.”
On Friday, clusters of mourners, most of them Latino and dressed in black, were gathered outside both overburdened funeral centers.
Gutierrez said he was grateful to Continental, which is lending him hearses when he runs out.
Pressure to serve so many families well, and sorrow over seeing so many people having been killed prematurely by COVID-19, is leaving him with anxiety, too, he said.
He recalled situations where he’d realize he’d have to arrange funerals for two members of a family, both of whom had died of the virus, such as a husband and wife.
“We’ll say, ‘Well, wait — we have the same last names together. Oh my God,'” he said. “It was just unbearable — and both of them Covid.”
CDC shoots down speculation of ‘USA variant’
Meanwhile, more than 60 cases of a COVID-19 variant first identified in the UK have now been identified in eight US states, according to data from the CDC.
The CDC said that’s not the total number of cases circulating in the country, but only those that have been found by analyzing positive samples. While the variant appears to spread more easily, there’s no evidence that it’s any more deadly or causes more severe disease, the agency said.
The CDC also shot down a January 3 report from the White House coronavirus task force that speculated about the existence of an easily transmissible “USA variant.”
There is no evidence yet that such a homegrown variant exists, the CDC said Friday.
“There is a strong possibility there are variants in the United States; however, it could (take) weeks or months to identify if there is a single variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 fueling the surge in the United States similar to the surge in the United Kingdom,” a spokesman said in an email to CNN.
As for the task force’s speculation, it began on a call with governors, during which officials were discussing whether the country’s steep climb in COVID-19 cases could be due to a more transmissible variant similar to one detected in the UK, an administration official told CNN.
The speculation made it into the written report. Like the CDC, the official emphasized to CNN that no such variant has actually been identified.
Scott Hensley, an expert on viruses and immunity at the University of Pennsylvania, said he was puzzled by the speculation.
“There are a lot of reasons why the infection rates have increased over the fall and winter,” Hensley said. “The rise in cases does not necessarily need a genetic explanation.”
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