California ends wide lockdown as Covid hospital strain eases

Los Angeles (AFP) –


California lifted blanket "stay-at-home" orders across the US state Monday, paving the way for activities including outdoor dining to return even in worst-hit regions as the pandemic's strain on hospitals begins to ease.

The western state has suffered one of the nation's worst winter Covid spikes, with hospital intensive care units overwhelmed, ambulances backed up for hours at a time, and cases more than doubling since December to over three million.

The "stay-at-home" measures were ordered for some 20 million people in southern and central California since December 3, but public health director Tomas Aragon said the state was now "turning a critical corner."

"California is slowly starting to emerge from the most dangerous surge of this pandemic yet, which is the light at the end of the tunnel we've been hoping for," the state's health secretary Mark Ghaly wrote in a statement.

"Seven weeks ago, our hospitals and front-line medical workers were stretched to their limits, but Californians heard the urgent message to stay home when possible and our surge after the December holidays did not overwhelm the health care system to the degree we had feared."

The decision to end the sweeping regional measures -- which included blanket bans on gatherings and "non-essential" activities, and closed outdoor dining and personal care businesses such as hair salons -- is based on forecasts for intensive care unit capacities improving across all California regions.

Latest ICU capacity in southern California is currently at zero percent, but with daily new cases falling sharply, projections show more than 15 percent will be available within four weeks.

But previous restrictions based on individual county conditions will return, meaning bans will remain on dozens of activities including bars, indoor dining and live sport crowds in most counties.

Individual counties can choose to impose stricter rules than the state requires, meaning severely affected regions including Los Angeles may even opt to retain current restrictions.

Los Angeles officials did not immediately respond to an AFP request for comment.

California has recorded more than 3.06 million Covid-19 cases, including almost 36,000 deaths.

The state has delivered just under 1.8 million vaccine doses so far, having converted sites including Disneyland and the Dodger baseball stadium in Los Angeles into mass inoculation centers.