A medical staff member treats a patient suffering from the coronavirus disease COVID-19 in the Intensive Care Unit at Scripps Mercy Hospital in Chula Vista. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

With coronavirus cases surging statewide and ICU beds expected to fill before Christmas, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday a more sweeping stay-at-home order could soon be imposed in the vast majority of California counties in hopes of preventing the health care system from being overrun.

Newsom said nine more of the state’s 58 counties have been moved into the most restrictive “purple” tier of the state’s COVID-19 monitoring system, meaning 51 counties are now in that tier. Those counties, which include San Diego, would be the ones likely subjected to a stay-at-home order reminiscent of the restrictions that were imposed at the onset of the pandemic, he said.

“The red flags are flying,” Newsom told reporters in an online briefing from his home in Sacramento, where he is under quarantine for possible exposure. “If these trends continue, we’re going to have to take much more dramatic, arguably drastic, action.”

Newsom cited an 89% increase in hospitalizations statewide over the past 14 days, and projections that the number of hospitalizations could double or triple within a month, based on the surging case numbers over the past two weeks. The state projects that 78% of hospital beds will be filled by Christmas Eve, and all currently available intensive care unit beds will be occupied by mid-December.

“We’re now looking in real time at hospitalization numbers and ICU capacity in those regions,” he said. “We are assessing this in real time over the next day or two to make determinations of deep purple moves in those purple tier status (counties) that is more equivalent, more in line with the stay-at-home order that folks were familiar with at the beginning of this year, with modifications in terms of the work that we are currently doing.”

Newsom noted that all hospitals have the ability to increase bed capacity, and the state has 11 surge facilities planned statewide that can add nearly 1,900 beds. But providing staffing for all of those beds could be an issue, he said.

California reported one of the nation’s sharpest increases in caseloads last week, up by more than 99,000 infections, or 31%, and second only to a 91% spike in Washington state.

Roughly 12% of daily new COVID-19 cases in California end up requiring hospitalization within two weeks of infection, with as many as 30% of those patients eventually requiring admission to ICU wards or respiratory support.

“What we worry about this time is specifically the ICUs,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s health and human services secretary. “Even when we may be using only 70% of our hospital beds in the state, we’re using over 100% of the projected capacity in ICU space.”

To date, California has documented more than 1.2 million coronavirus cases and over 19,000 COVID-19 deaths.

Updated at 7:30 p.m., Monday, Nov. 30, 2020

— From Staff and Wire Reports

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.