California orders 5,000 body bags, refrigerated trucks on standby as COVID surges

"We are not at the finish line yet," Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday.

December 15, 2020, 5:49 PM

California ordered 5,000 more body bags and has dozens of refrigerated trucks on standby as the state experiences its "most intense" COVID-19 surge to date, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday.

The state reported 32,326 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, amid "historically high" case numbers, the governor said. Its 14-day average positivity rate is 10.7% -- the highest it's been since the beginning of the pandemic. Two weeks ago, that rate was 6.9%.

There were 142 new deaths reported on Tuesday, with the seven-day average at 163 per day as of Monday. That number was 41 a month ago.

Amid the surge in deaths, the state has distributed 5,000 newly purchased body bags to San Diego, Los Angeles and Inyo counties, and has 60 53-foot refrigerated storage units on standby in counties and at hospitals, he said. California is also activating its coroner mutual aid and mass fatality program, Newsom said, to coordinate the response of coroners and morgues.

"This is a deadly disease, and we need to be mindful of where we are," Newsom said. "We are not at the finish line yet."

PHOTO: People wait in line at a COVID-19 testing center despite the Stay-At-Home regulation underway in Los Angeles, Dec. 8, 2020.
People wait in line at a COVID-19 testing center despite the Stay-At-Home regulation underway in Los Angeles, Dec. 8, 2020.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Hospitalization rates are also troubling, increasing 68% in the past two weeks, he said. Intensive care unit admissions have also increased 54% in the past two weeks.

Statewide, ICU capacity is at 5.7%. The San Joaquin Valley and Southern California regions have ICU availability under 2%. When a region hits 0% ICU capacity, surge staffing and surge management go into effect, Newsom said.

San Joaquin Valley and Southern California, as well as Greater Sacramento, have entered a state-ordered shutdown, triggered when the ICU availability drops below 15%. Under the stay-at-home order, nonessential businesses such as hair salons, bars and movie theaters must close, restaurants can only open for takeout and retail capacity is limited to 20% for at least three weeks.

Los Angeles County has been especially hard-hit by the pandemic, with the average daily hospitalizations of people with COVID-19 increasing 312% from Nov. 9 to Dec. 10, officials said. Nearly half of the county's ICU beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients, officials said Monday. By the weekend, it could be more than half, as health officials pleaded with residents to stay home.

“Our reality is frightening at the moment,” Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said.

The governor's briefing comes a day after the state administered its first COVID-19 vaccine dose in Los Angeles County, and thousands of doses are being rolled out across the state. Twenty-four locations expected doses to arrive on Tuesday and 33 hospitals should have the vaccine by Wednesday, officials said.

PHOTO: Gov. Gavin Newsom watches as the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is prepared by Director of Inpatient Pharmacy David Cheng at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center in Los Angeles, Dec. 14, 2020.
Gov. Gavin Newsom watches as the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is prepared by Director of Inpatient Pharmacy David Cheng at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center in Los Angeles, Dec. 14, 2020.
Jae C. Hong/Pool via Reuters

"There is light at the end of the tunnel," Newsom said. "But we are still in the tunnel, going through the most challenging and difficult surge we've experienced since the beginning of this pandemic."

Newsom has received pushback to the state's COVID-19 response, especially around restrictions. A recall effort has collected more than half of the nearly 1.5 million petition signatures needed by mid-March to get it on the ballot.

Organizers told The Associated Press this week that the effort gained steam after the Democratic leader dined with friends last month at a restaurant while urging constituents to stay home. Newsom has since apologized for attending the event.

ABC News' Alex Stone and Cammeron Parrish contributed to this report.

This report was featured in the Wednesday, Dec.16, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.

"Start Here" offers a straightforward look at the day's top stories in 20 minutes. Listen for free every weekday on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, the ABC News app or wherever you get your podcasts.

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