Coronavirus’ rampage through California has now made it the worst natural disaster in the state’s history, outpacing decades of wildfires and earthquakes. As the surge continues, it is on pace to be the third leading cause of death in the state this year, a stunning potential milestone for a disease that was unknown nine months ago.
But the numbers capture only a fraction of the agony the virus has caused, considering the lingering health impacts and survivors’ pain, not to mention the societal disruption.
On Thursday, the state passed 10,000 deaths from COVID-19 since San Jose’s Patricia Dowd, 57, became the first known fatality from the virus in the United States on Feb. 6. The death toll appears to have eclipsed suicide, hypertension, influenza and diabetes to become the seventh leading cause of death in the state in just six months, judging from 2018 mortality numbers from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This number, 10,000, doesn’t remotely represent the worst” coronavirus could do, said Dr. Steven Goodman, an epidemiology professor at Stanford University. “It could easily be at a level close to cancer or heart disease in a year if we didn’t do anything.”
Ironically, the 10,000-death milestone fell at a moment when California’s other coronavirus data has been called into question. Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday called for an investigation into computer system problems that appear to have compromised the state’s testing and infection totals for at least the last two weeks.
The call came as California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly broke the state’s silence surrounding the system’s persistent technical problems with an overview of what led to the massive data backup, which has left counties in limbo as they relied on old-fashioned spreadsheets to try to track the virus locally. Ghaly was unable to say for certain when all the problems will be fixed.
“We’re doing a complete look into how that communication could have been better and where it went wrong,” Ghaly said, adding, “We will hold people accountable.”
The problems did not compromise the death numbers, however, and they are stunning.
To put coronavirus in context, more than 62,500 people died of heart disease in California in 2018, the most recent year for which totals are available. Almost 60,000 died from cancer, followed by 16,600 deaths from Alzheimer’s Disease and 16,400 from strokes.
COVID-19 could surpass the last two of those soon — a new estimate released Thursday predicts California could have almost 32,700 fatalities from the virus by Dec. 1, even with the state’s current mitigation plan. The analysis, from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, predicts even with near-universal mask usage, deaths could reach about 21,400 by that date.
Nothing, other than perhaps climate change, has had such a profound impact on the state, Goodman said.
Wildfires, a deadly and increasingly destructive presence in California, pale in comparison. The 20 deadliest wildfires in the state’s modern history claimed a combined 302 lives, according to CalFire. That includes 85 deaths at the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County, and 25 deaths at the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire. California currently is averaging about the same number of deaths as those 20 wildfires every two days.
The closest single natural disaster, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, is estimated to have directly and indirectly claimed 3,000 lives at a time when San Francisco had about 400,000 residents. Besides that notorious disaster, large earthquakes have claimed fewer than 500 lives in the state since the 1800s, including 63 in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Only two disasters still outpace COVID-19’s death totals, but their records will almost certainly fall by this winter. In 20 years after California became a state and gold was discovered, as many as 16,000 Native Americans were killed during a widespread campaign of genocide against the region’s original inhabitants by new white settlers. And in 1918, the influenza epidemic killed about 16,800 people in California — with another 13,000 dying in the two subsequent years.
For those touched by the virus, the death toll is not the whole picture. Stacey Silva lost her father, Gary Young, in mid-March, a victim of the virus at a time when there were fewer than 1,000 known cases in the state. Young, who lived with Silva in her Gilroy home, was known for greeting people with “good morning” at any time of day, a guaranteed way to bring a smile to their faces, Silva said.
Silva said she’s struggled with depression and guilt after the disease kept her from her father’s side when he passed away. She is also frustrated by people opposed to mask requirements that could help limit the spread of the virus.
“The pain I went through, the pain my family went through, I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy,” she said.
It also took a financial toll. After news stories were published about Young’s death, Silva’s wife lost her job. Her wife’s boss, Silva said, fired her because she had not informed him she was connected to someone with the virus. She declined to name the company.
Even those who heal from the virus could have life-long complications. Doctors have reported people with damaged heart and lungs, clotting issues that lead to strokes and pulmonary embolisms among younger patients, Goodman said.
“Even for those who’ve survived, we’re still trying to get a handle of what percentage of those have either prolonged courses or permanent damage,” he said. “It’s hard to get long-term outcomes when the virus has only been around for six months.”
Staff writer Fiona Kelliher contributed to this report.
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