California restricts COVID-19 testing as cases surge

California is changing its coronavirus testing strategy after it shattered its own record Wednesday for new COVID-19 infections, reporting a staggering 11,126 confirmed cases.

The testing strategy will return to focusing on vulnerable patients and those at the highest risk of contracting the virus, which has infected more than 3 million Americans, according NBC News counts.

The updated strategy is similar to what was in place before April when public health officials opened testing to everyone, including people without symptoms.

But as California sinks deeper and deeper into the pandemic, public health officials are trying to free up space in the health system for patients who will require the most care. Targeted testing could alleviate some of the supply chain shortages that have caused testing bottlenecks and forced many patients to wait up to a week for results.

“We all know that testing in California is a vital piece of our response,” California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly said on Tuesday.

Hospitalizations are also up, with at least 6,786 residents being treated for COVID-19, and more than 1,900 of them in intensive care units, according to the the California Department of Public Health.

Los Angeles County, the state’s most populous, also reported spikes in both confirmed coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. The county added 4,244 new cases on Tuesday and another 2,758 in the last 24 hours. It also recorded a new three-day average of more than 2,000 hospitalizations per day.

The county represents the bulk of infections statewide with more than 140,600 cases total. The state total is more than 347,000 confirmed cases and 7,227 deaths as of Tuesday.

“We are in an alarming and dangerous phase,” Dr. Barbara Ferrer, Los Angeles County Public Health Director, said on Wednesday during a daily press briefing.

In April, California eased restrictions and focused ontesting as many people as possible, with or without symptoms. Under the new guidelines announced this week, testing priority will given to people already hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms and their close contacts.

Second priority will go to anyone with symptoms and asymptomatic people who live or work in congregate care settings, health care professionals, caregivers, jail and prison workers, law enforcement and public safety employees and patients being admitted to or released from hospitals.

Third and fourth priority will be given to essential workers who interact with the public regularly and anyone who believes they are at risk of contracting coronavirus.

“Testing helps us understand how COVID-19 moves through our communities so we can identify areas where transmission is occurring,” Ghaly said on Tuesday. “Today we are redoubling our commitment to ensure testing remains a top priority for California.”

The state is asking health insurance providers to cover the cost of testing, about $100 per test, for all residents.

The state is also hoping to ramp us testing capacity from about 2,000 a day at the beginning of the pandemic to at least 200,000 a day. Currently, the state is averaging about 105,000 tests per day, according to Ghaly.

“We all know that testing in California is a vital piece of our response not only to focus on taking care of patients who present with symptoms … but also to understand the patterns of transmission across the state,” he said.

Testing sites will be added in the hardest hit communities, including several in Southern California, said Los Angeles County public health officials.

The surge in California cases comes as other coronavirus hotspots, including Florida, Arizona and Texas, wage their own battles against a rise in infections. Meanwhile former hotspots are beginning to see improvements. For the first time since the pandemic started, New York City reported no new coronavirus-related deaths earlier this week.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has also rolled back some of the reopening guidelines introduced at the start of summer. He ordered 30 counties, including Los Angeles and Orange, to close gyms, bars, salons and non-essential offices. The directive was meant to keep people outdoors, where the coronavirus is less likely to spread, Ghaly later explained.

Residents are still instructed to wear masks in public, continue to practice social distancing and to limit interactions with people outside the household.

“We know that generalized mixing outside of your household, movement where you’re mixing with others, any of those events and activities create an opportunity for transmission,” Ghaly said. “In general, industries where that happens to prolonged degrees, where potential for lack of follow-through on some of our guidelines and guidance around how industries open, can and have led to outbreaks in some of those settings.”

In downtown Los Angeles, more than 300 coronavirus infections were reported over the weekend at the Los Angeles Apparel factory, where workers were making clothing and face masks. The public health department ordered the warehouse to close, affecting some 2,000 employees, NBC Los Angeles reported.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Ferrer noted that the hardest populations in Los Angeles are communities of color. Latinos are more than twice as likely as white peoples to contract coronavirus and die from it, she said. Black people are 25 percent more likely to become infected as white people and twice as likely to die.

“It’s a disheartening and heartbreaking reality that Blacks and Latinos are hardest hit,” she said. “Essential workers are unable to stay home.”

Despite the rise of hospitalizations and confirmed cases, some Californians continue to push back against coronavirus restrictions.

A barbershop in Burbank vowed on Tuesday to remain open even as his competitors closed their doors.

“They closed us for three months,” Steve Kharazian, owner of Fades and Blades Barbershop told NBC Los Angeles. “We’re all for the safety of our people, but barbershops and salons are much safer than any other industry out there.”

Kharazian posted an angry rant to Instagram earlier in the week, declaring that “barber lives matter.”

“We are going to stay open,” he said.

But hair stylist Ciara Dungan, based in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles, said she hopes the new directives will help people to better comply with guidelines.

“I just really hope people are going to take it seriously,” she told Nightly News. “I don’t really know what it’s going to take for people to understand.

Meanwhile, officials in Orange County recently voted to allow in-person learning to resume for the upcoming school year. Masks and social distancing will not be required even as Los Angeles and San Diego unified school districts, which border Orange County on either side, voted to begin the school year virtually. Students in those districts will only return to the classroom when public conditions allow.