The day after California began its Covid-19 vaccination rollout, the state activated its “mass fatality” program, including the purchase of 5,000 body bags.
In a press conference Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the activation of the program, which coordinates mutual aid activity between state and local agencies in a crisis, is in direct response to the surge of Covid-19 cases and deaths.
Sixty refrigerated storage units, each more than 50 feet long, will be used throughout the state for emergency overflow for coroners and morgues.
Newsom said the program addresses what he called “sobering realities” in the state’s battle against the pandemic.
“I don’t want people to scare folks, but this is a deadly disease. And we need to be mindful of where we are in this current journey together, to the vaccine. We are not at the finish line,” the governor said.
California health officials on Tuesday announced the state’s fifth consecutive day of more than 30,000 new Covid-19 infections. The daily average of new Covid-19 deaths in California was 163 on December 14, nearly four times the death rate one month prior.
The total number of fatalities in the state is 21,188 as of Tuesday. Nationally, the death toll for the pandemic surpassed 300,000 on Monday as health officials warn of no immediate sign of abating.
Hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions in California are at all-time highs, as stay-at-home orders were enacted for large portions of the state last week.
The restrictions are triggered by whether a particular part of the state has less than 15% ICU availability; the Southern California and San Joaquin Valley regions are at less than 2% ICU availability as of Tuesday, and San Joaquin Valley briefly dipped to zero over the weekend before rebounding, according to Newsom.
About 3,000 patients are currently being treated in ICUs statewide, intensifying the strain on California’s health care system.
Newsom stressed this did not mean local hospitals were completely out of space, but instead that staffing remains the most immediate challenge.
He signed an executive order temporarily waiving some nurse-to-patient ratios and the state is adding nursing staff through contract agencies, the California National Guard, and California Health Corps.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is providing 80 paramedics and emergency medical technicians, and the state has requested 200 more health care workers from the Defense Department of Defense.
The state is stretching resources to help “these frontline health care workers, these nurses, in particular, that are just doing heroic work every single day and asking yet again for a little bit more during these very challenging next few weeks,” he said.
CNN’s Travis Caldwell contributed to this report.