California coronavirus death toll nears 2,000

A recent surge in the number of cases and deaths linked to the coronavirus has pushed California to the brink of two grim milestones, as the state is poised to surpass 50,000 infections and 2,000 deaths by the end of Thursday.

The recent increases have been fueled largely by Los Angeles County, which continues to be an epicenter of the coronavirus crisis even as other parts of the state have seen signs the illness is retreating.

County Public Health Department Director Barbara Ferrer announced 1,541 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday — the largest increase reported in a single day since the pandemic began.

The county now has more than 22,500 confirmed infections and accounts for nearly half of all California’s coronavirus cases.

Of the 1,956 coronavirus-related deaths that had been recorded statewide as of Thursday morning, more than 1,000 have been in Los Angeles County. Only three other counties — Riverside, San Diego and Santa Clara — have recorded more than 100 fatalities.

Los Angeles County’s sharp uptick in new cases is mostly attributable to expanded testing, which health officials stress is essential in getting a better sense of how many people have the virus. That data, in turn, could be used to ease California’s stay-at-home rules.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced Wednesday that all county residents can now get free coronavirus testing at city-run sites. Previously, only residents with symptoms, essential workers or those in institutional settings such as nursing homes could be tested.

The county, though, said it “has not issued any new testing guidelines.” Officials promised to clarify details during their daily briefing Thursday afternoon.

While state- and county-level officials have expressed optimism that California is headed in the right direction, the continued growth in the number of cases and deaths shows the state isn’t out of the woods.

Even so, some counties are pushing for Gov. Gavin Newsom to allow them to ease stay-at-home restrictions.

That’s particularly true in less crowded, more remote areas where COVID-19 activity has been scant.

Modoc County, one of four California counties that have not reported a single case of coronavirus infection, plans to allow all businesses, schools and churches to reopen starting Friday, as long as people stay six feet apart, according to a statement signed by county officials.

It’s unclear whether that would lead to a legal showdown between the county and Newsom, whose statewide stay-at-home order supersedes local laws.

Other counties and cities have already started allowing select activities to resume, or reopening outdoor and recreational spaces that were shuttered to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

A major flashpoint has been beaches. During last weekend’s heat wave, thousands flocked to the coastline in Orange County, which, unlike Los Angeles County’s, was open to the public.

While the conditions remain a matter of some dispute — officials in Orange County and elsewhere insist that most beachgoers were acting responsibly and following social-distancing guidelines — images over the weekend drew a rebuke from Newsom, who a source says is now poised to order the closure of all California beaches.

The governor’s office declined to comment Wednesday night. But earlier in the day, Newsom said he was mulling additional action.

“I’m working with state parks and others, and a lot of our other partners — Coastal Commission, State Lands [Commission] and others — to really figure out what our next steps are,” he said. “And I can assure you that … clarity will come in a very short period of time.”

Times staff writers Rosanna Xia, John Myers and Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.

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