“It’s really hard to put all of it into words.”
It was December, as Covid-19 deaths were besieging California, and Helen Cordova, an intensive care unit nurse in Los Angeles, was trying to describe what it was like.
“This is a very real disease,” Ms. Cordova said. “Those images of inside of hospitals, that’s very accurate.”
Two months later, it is still hard to put in words how deeply the pandemic has scarred the state, but one single number told the story: 50,000.
That is how many people have died from coronavirus over the past year in California — the first state to pass that milestone. The record was hit on Wednesday, and by Thursday deaths were nearing 51,000.
It was a bleak reminder that the recent progress the state has made against the pandemic may be fragile. Most of those deaths were recorded recently, during a frightening winter surge that followed a period of relatively low case counts and cautious hope.
According to a New York Times database, California, the country’s most populous state, averaged more than 560 deaths a day at its peak in January. By contrast, for much of November, it reported fewer than 50 deaths a day on average.
Though the state has reported more total deaths than any other in the nation, it is far from the hardest hit relative to the size of its population. At least 30 states have reported more total deaths per capita, and New Jersey has recorded twice as many.
Tallying the loss of life across California’s vast expanse belies the virus’s uneven impact on poorer communities of color, particularly in the Central Valley and Los Angeles.
“We’ve created a separate and unequal hospital system and a separate and unequal funding system for low-income communities,” said Dr. Elaine Batchlor, chief executive of Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in Los Angeles, the hardest-hit hospital for its size in the hardest-hit county in the state.
Latinos, who are more likely than other Californians to work in essential industries and less likely to have the resources or space to isolate themselves if they get infected, have been sickened and have died at disproportionately high rates.
And so far, California has failed to prevent the same inequities from plaguing the state’s vaccination effort, a process that has been criticized as chaotic and confusing.
Nearly all of California’s roughly 40 million residents spent the holidays under strict orders to stay at home. Gatherings with people they did not live with were banned.
Even with those restrictions, the virus spread rapidly and hospitals were overwhelmed.
Doctors and nurses like Ms. Cordova treated patients in hospital lobbies. Relatives watched remotely as loved ones took their last breaths. Health care workers who held the screens for them are still grappling with the lingering effects of sustained trauma.
Now, as in the fall, there is a feeling of hope.
California is reporting half as many new cases a day, on average, as it did two weeks ago. Some counties have been allowed to lift restrictions, and local officials say more reopenings are on the way.
And California has administered many more vaccine doses than any other state.
The first in the state to get one outside of a clinical trial?
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