Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

New cases in California have surged and intensive care units in the state are overflowing.

Jonathan Wolfe


Credit…The New York Times

The holidays were not kind to California. New infections in the state have skyrocketed — driven by Thanksgiving gatherings and then Christmas festivities — despite weekslong lockdowns in December throughout much of the state. Now, Gov. Gavin Newsom is warning of “a surge on top of a surge” linked to the holidays that will only get worse in the coming weeks.

The situation is perhaps most dire in Los Angeles County, where it’s estimated that one person becomes infected every six seconds, and one person dies every 10 minutes. The latest crisis has stretched the health care system there so thin that incoming patients at one hospital were told to wait in an outdoor tent. The region is running out of oxygen, and ambulance crews have been instructed to stop transporting people who have little chance of survival.

California has the second highest rate of new cases per 100,000 people after Arizona. Over the past month, the number of Covid-19 patients in California hospitals has doubled, and many intensive care units are overflowing. In Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley, intensive care units are at zero percent capacity.

More inoculations would help ease California’s burden, but as with the rest of the country, the vaccine rollout in California has been sluggish, with only about a third of the state’s 1.3 million doses reaching the arms of patients. Worryingly, at least six people in the state have been found to have been infected with the new, more transmissible variant of the virus.

There has been some progress. Infection rates appear to have stabilized in recent days, but reporting anomalies tied to the holidays mean that it may be another week before we have a solid understand of how much the virus has recently spread.

Even if infection rates slow, my colleague Shawn Hubler, who covers California, said officials were bracing for a harrowing month, and asking an already exhausted population to hunker down until this latest surge passed.

“There are many more people who are obeying the law, than not,” Shawn said. “But it’s still not enough.”

When the coronavirus arrived in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered state-run hospitals to stop suing patients over unpaid medical bills. Almost every major private hospital in the state voluntarily followed suit, except Northwell Health, the state’s largest health system.

My colleague Brian Rosenthal, an investigative reporter, found that the nonprofit health system, which operates 23 hospitals, sued more than 2,500 patients last year, for an average bill of $1,700, plus large interest payments. The flurry of lawsuits hit teachers, construction workers, grocery store employees and others at a time of widespread unemployment.

Across the state, Brian found that around 50 hospitals have sued about 5,000 patients since March, but Northwell stands out for its aggressive number of lawsuits and because of its connections to Mr. Cuomo. Northwell’s chief executive officer, Michael Dowling, has been a close friend to Mr. Cuomo for more than three decades and has served as the governor’s closest ally in the hospital industry during the pandemic.

Medical debt lawsuits are becoming more common across the country, as health care costs have risen and insurance companies push more of the financial burden onto patients. These cases are rarely contested in court, and they usually lead to default judgments that allow hospitals to garnish wages and freeze accounts to extract money, sometimes without the patient’s knowledge.

Here’s a roundup of restrictions in all 50 states.

Coping? I’ve been staying home for eight months. I’m no longer coping. I’m merely surviving, day after day. I always wake up angry, go to bed angry. I can’t take it anymore. It’s come to the point I simply do not care anymore whether I get sick or not. I just really want to go out and see people, socialize. The only reason I don’t is because I live with my father, and I couldn’t get myself to put him in harm’s way. Still, this fix has been far worse than the problem, in my experience, since Day 1.

— Gabriel Luciano Oliveira Mattos, Aracaju, Brazil

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Carole Landry contributed to today’s newsletter.

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Jonathan Wolfe