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As coronavirus spreads, California puts National Guard on alert and asks Navy for help

Dr. Dallas Weaver, 79, and his wife, Janet Weaver, 75, wear masks in Huntington Beach, Calif., on March 18, 2020. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times/TNS)

With coronavirus cases and deaths rising in California, state officials are racing to prepare hospitals for more patients while also tapping other resources including the National Guard and the U.S. Navy for a hospital boat.

California has seen the number of confirmed cases continue to rise: at least 836 cases and 17 deaths as of Wednesday, compared with 157 cases and three deaths the week before. Nearly 12,000 people in the state are self-monitoring for symptoms.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has put the California National Guard on “alert” as more and more counties order residents to stay in their homes and the hoarding of cleaning supplies, toilet paper and other essential goods continues to strip market shelves.

Newsom’s order falls short of activating California’s National Guard force of roughly 22,000, and he emphasized that that the state often relies on the Guard’s assistance in times of disaster and crisis, especially in response to wildfires and earthquakes.

While the governor said the National Guard’s role would focus on both humanitarian and public safety needs, Newsom specially pointed out the rash of panic-buying at markets across the state. Long lines have become commonplace at grocery stores and warehouse clubs, in Southern California and across the nation.

Newsom said the troops would, in part, “make sure food delivery is happening appropriately” and ensure that customers do not overreact at stores.

“We want to make sure people know that their security is top of mind,” he said during a Tuesday briefing on the state’s response to the outbreak.

Ronald Fong, president of the California Grocers Assn., said markets are struggling to restock shelves because so many customers are buying an overabundance of food and supplies.

He urged customers to return to their normal grocery shopping routine, saying there is no shortage of food or necessities such as toilet paper — just an overwhelmed supply chain to the stores.

“The grocery stores are what the governor has deemed an essential service,” Fong said. “Grocery stores are going to stay open. But we cannot keep up with a shopping pattern that customers have adopted by overbuying.”

Newsom said National Guard troops would also assist local governments, but did not offer specifics about their potential roles.

“The reality is cities can only do so much and when you are not capable of doing a little bit more, and it becomes regionalized, that’s the appropriate role of the state of California,” Newsom said. “We just want folks to know we’re leaning in a little bit more aggressively in that space as well.”

Gov. Pete Wilson deployed the Guard after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, when troops patrolled streets and enforced a nighttime curfew.

Earlier this month, a California National Guard helicopter delivered supplies to the Grand Princess cruise ship when it was held off the San Francisco coast until some of the passengers and crew could be tested for the coronavirus. The ship eventually docked in Oakland.

More than 20 states have already called in their National Guard troops in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said the department is considering activating National Guard units, the reserves and the Navy’s hospital ships to assist with stemming the outbreak.

Newsom said Wednesday that the state has asked the Department of Defense to deploy the Navy’s Mercy hospital ship and two mobile hospitals to California to help care for the expected surge in hospitalizations of residents stricken by the coronavirus.

The governor said the state is working to expand its cache of hospital beds by roughly 20,000, the number thought to be needed if more than half of Californians come down with the coronavirus.

“That’s just one scenario plan. There’s others that are more modest. Some may, some cases may be more extreme,” Newsom said Wednesday evening during a Facebook Live broadcast. “When you’re looking at getting an additional [19,000] to 20,000 beds in your system, you have to look at your existing surge capacity within the healthcare delivery system, and you have to look at procuring additional assets.”

The state estimates that surge capacity in California’s existing hospital system could accommodate 10,000 patients.

The state also is in the process of procuring two hospitals that are currently offline, one in Southern California and one in Northern California, along with leasing hotels and motels where coronavirus patients could be housed and treated.

If requests for the military medical assistance are granted, California should be close to reaching the 20,000-bed threshold, Newsom said.

“If you assume for every individual that’s contracted the virus that they impact two individuals and we have hospitalization rates as high as — in some instances we model — 20%, that would require a broader surge capacity of our healthcare delivery system, north of 19,500 additional beds,” Newsom said.

SchoolsCampuses are closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but school — and learning — is still in session.

“While we are in very unique circumstances at this time, we are still providing education to our students,” State Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said. “School is not out, but we are finding a different way to deliver it.”

Nearly all schools across the state have shut down, and many school districts had announced weeks-long closures. But Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday evening said schools are likely to remain closed even longer — perhaps for the remainder of the academic year, a disruption to the education of 6.1 million students.

Newsom stuck to that position in a Wednesday update, although state and local school officials stressed that no official directive has been issued.

But the quick-moving developments have sent volunteers and educators scrambling to establish online coursework, meals and other support services for their many students in need.

Social distancingAt least 16 counties, most in the Bay Area, as well as the city of Palm Springs have ordered all residents to stay at home as much as possible.

On Wednesday, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, San Luis Obispo, Solano and Yolo counties joined Sonoma, San Benito, Monterey, San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin and Santa Cruz counties, which previously had given shelter-in-place orders.

“This is already a painful situation for many families and businesses. And make no mistake about it, it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” state Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) said at a news conference. “But this is an opportunity to move in the right direction, to flatten the curve.”

In Ventura County, health officials announced a shelter-in-place order Tuesday that applies only to older residents.

In total, about 20% of the state’s population is under shelter-in-place orders.


© 2020 the Los Angeles Times