SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — As California’s death toll from the coronavirus topped the grim 1,000 death milestone, state and local officials have struggled to slow the spread of the virus among vulnerable populations such as the homeless.
The pandemic that has plunged California — the world’s fifth-largest economy — into recession has hit hard. There are concerns the virus could sweep through the state’s 150,000 homeless, many of whom have chronic health conditions and lack safe places to quarantine themselves, health officials say.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has announced efforts to move thousands of those without shelter into government-funded hotel rooms, was expected to focus on homelessness during a Saturday news briefing.
On Friday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that next week the city will begin sending medical teams to the streets to screen people for the virus. In the next few weeks, teams will also begin offering fast-result COVID-19 field tests and those who are infected will be offered transportation to shelters and have hotel rooms set aside for them.
“If we encounter somebody who’s living on the street or in their car, somebody who’s in a shelter who’s sick, they’ll be able to test them right away,” Garcetti said.
More than 30 homeless people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Los Angeles County, including six at a skid row shelter, health authorities said.
So far, San Francisco is the only city to report a large-scale outbreak at a homeless shelter, after more than 100 people tested positive, including 10 staff. None of the people was seriously ill when tested but three have since been hospitalized, said public health spokeswoman Rachael Kagan.
Meanwhile, California’s death toll from the virus rose above 1,050 on Saturday, according to a tally by John Hopkins University.
The state also reported for the first time Friday that there are 3,500 confirmed cases, or about 12% statewide, are in nursing homes or adult care facilities, where infections have spread quickly.
There have been signs the outbreak is slowing in the month or more since most of the state’s 40 million residents found themselves under state and local orders to stay at home. Social distancing rules are being praised for that but they have hit the economy hard, shutting down schools, tourist spots and most restaurants and retail businesses.
Newsom named a task force Friday to help the state recover economically after he begins easing restrictions, although such a move isn’t expected for several weeks. The nonpartisan panel of billionaires and corporate leaders includes all four living former governors — two Democrats, like Newsom, and two Republicans.
The panel’s appointment comes after dismal unemployment figures ended a record 10-year economic growth streak Friday. The job losses were based on a survey taken the week that included March 12, meaning most of the state’s job losses aren’t reflected in that figure.
On Friday, Newsom announced 3.1 million people have filed for unemployment benefits since mid-March.
“We are now in a pandemic-induced recession here in the state of California,” Newsom said. “These are sober and challenging times.”
In order to begin lifting restrictions that will allow the reopening of businesses, the state will need to test 25,000 people a day and track down those they may have infected, a big task in the nation’s most populous state. Testing has been problematic for weeks across the U.S., with fewer than 20,000 administered each day, though testing sites continue to expand. Several areas have begun offering COVID-19 tests to people without symptoms.
“While California has excelled in so many categories, we have not in testing,” Newsom said Saturday in an online conversation with former President Bill Clinton. He said the state had either been lacking specimens or diagnostic capacity to increase testing, but he was optimistic the expansion of blood-based antibody tests will pave the way for contact tracing.
“But right now, we’re not even close as a nation, let alone as a state, to where we should be on testing,” he said.
Expanding testing to those who aren’t necessarily feeling sick is “going to be a key indicator for understanding how it spreads and knowing where our areas of concern are,” said Dr. Cameron Kaiser, Riverside County’s public health officer.
Associated Press writers Amy Taxin in Orange County, Adam Beam and Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento and Brian Melley and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this story.