A Scripps Health nurse treats a coronavirus patient in an ICU. Image from Scripps video

California’s top health officer announced Tuesday a three-week extension of the stay-at-home order in Southern California amid an “intense, critical situation in our hospitals.”

The official announcement comes after Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday the just expired order was likely to be extended.

Dr. Mark Gahly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Secretary, said hospitals in Southern California are approaching a crisis situation in which medical care could have to be rationed.

“Many hospitals are being stretched to provide the kind of care we expect in California,” he said during a livestreamed press conference, adding that Southern California hospitals are currently in a crisis situation.

Gahly said ICU capacity in both the Southern California and San Joaquin Valley regions is essentially at zero, with hospitals converting every unused space for patient care.

“Hospitals are doing all that they can to staff up and provide beds,” he said, but he warned that hospitals could soon be forced to put patients on cots, ration supplies and use triage techniques to decide who gets care.

He said oxygen containers for patients having trouble breathing are currently in short supply, and many hospitals in Los Angeles are turning away ambulances. But he said no hospital is currently resorting to triage.

There are currently 20,390 COVID-19 patients in California hospitals, with 4,308 of them in ICUs. There have been 24,526 deaths through Tuesday, with 242 in the past 24 hours.

“We’re losing Californians day-over-day in large numbers,” Gahly said.

He said there are “some signs that case numbers are stabilizing” across the state, but the pandemic remains particularly intense in Southern California. The statewide testing positive rate has fallen over the past week, but remains at 12%.

“All of those trends … give me continued concern that we need to continue to work to prepare for the next holiday surge of cases into the early part of next year, and that likely … in the middle of January we will see a significant higher number of cases than we have today of individuals with COVID who need hospital-level care,” Gahly said.

In anticipation of an extended Southern California stay-at-home order, Los Angeles County on Sunday night extended its own order, which essentially mirrors the state’s restrictions.

The state also extended the stay-at-home order for the San Joaquin Valley. Four of the five regions carved out by the state are under stay-at-home orders, covering 98% of the state’s population. Only far northern California is not under a stay-at-home order.

Under the order, the following businesses and venues are required to close:

  • Indoor recreational facilities
  • Hair salons and barbershops
  • Personal care services
  • Museums, zoos and aquariums
  • Movie theaters
  • Wineries
  • Bars, breweries and distilleries
  • Family entertainment centers
  • Cardrooms and satellite wagering
  • Limited services
  • Live audience sports
  • And amusement parks

Schools with waivers can remain open, along with “critical infrastructure” and retail stores, which will be limited to 20% of capacity. Restaurants are restricted to takeout and delivery service only. Hotels are allowed to open “for critical infrastructure support only,” while churches are restricted to outdoor only services. Entertainment production — including professional sports — can continue without live audiences.

Ghaly again preached compliance with health orders such as staying at home as much as possible, wearing a face covering and practicing social distancing.

“Much of what we’re dealing with is avoidable,” he said. “Much of what we’re seeing can be stopped if we collectively make decisions to stop it.”

Updated at 7:05 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020

— City News Service contributed to this report.

Chris Jennewein

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