A day after chastising beachgoers and day-hikers for failing to take California’s stay-at-home edict seriously, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the reported death of a Lancaster teen with the coronavirus is a dire sign that the pandemic “can impact anybody and everybody.” 

If confirmed, it would be the first known COVID-19 fatality of anyone under 18 in the United States. That grim milestone “underscores the enormity of the challenge in front of us,” Newsom said Tuesday night in a live-streamed address. “What more evidence do you need than the loss of a young person’s life?” 

Los Angeles County public health officials said Tuesday night that “early tests indicated a positive result for COVID-19” in the teenager, but added that “the case is complex and there may be an alternate explanation for this fatality. Patient privacy prevents our offering further details at this time.”

The Orange County Register reported Tuesday night that Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris said the person who died was a 17-year-old boy who was in otherwise good health.

Newsom urged Californians to consider the tragedy a wake-up call: “Let us not have to once again announce that a teenager lost their life because we didn’t take this moment seriously.”

The coronavirus strikes people of all ages, but those most likely to die are seniors. The virus attacks the respiratory system, sometimes causing pneumonia and other severe breathing difficulties.

Nationwide as of March 16, fifteen deaths were reported among adults aged 85 or older, 20 among those 65 to 84 and nine among those 20 to 64 years, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. Of 2,449 patients of known age, 6% were 85 or older, 25% were 65 to 84 years, 18% each were 55 to 64 years and 45 to 54 years, 29% were 20 to 44 years and 5% were 19 or younger. 

The governor’s tone was notably different from the one coming out of Washington, D.C., where President Donald Trump bemoaned the toll that widespread social distancing is taking on the economy. He announced a goal of relaxing national restrictions by Easter.

Newsom, who has struck a markedly conciliatory tact with Trump, his erstwhile political foe, since the pandemic began, would not make that same vow about California’s shelter-in-place order.

“I think April for California would be sooner than any of the experts that I talk to would believe is possible,” he said, instead reiterating that eight to twelve more weeks of shelter-in-place restrictions may be necessary. 

The governor also issued a new executive order to halt the transfer of offenders from county jails into the state’s prison system in an effort to reduce transmission of the virus throughout the state penal system. 

Dana Simas, press secretary for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the order is likely to prevent approximately 3,000 inmates from being transferred over the course of 30 days. 

Death and hospitalization rates are rising across the state in what public health experts say is a worrying trend. 

“Every community where the virus has taken hold has seen a surge in coronavirus patients who need to be hospitalized,” Grant Colfax, San Francisco’s Public Health Chief said at a press conference on Monday. “We expect that to happen in San Francisco in a week or two, or perhaps less.”

So far 2,102 California cases are confirmed. While that’s a rapid and dramatic increase, it’s not clear to what extent it reflects an actual spike in the rate of transmission versus the more widespread availability of viral test kits, which are now allowing authorities to tally more of the cases that were previously going undetected. 

To answer that question, public health officials in six Bay Area counties along with the City of Berkeley are now ordering labs to report all coronavirus tests — positive, negative and inconclusive. 

That more complete data will allow “local health officials to better understand whether there are areas of the community that are experiencing more intense transmission and (to) project future trends in the spread of the virus,” San Francisco public health officer Tomás Aragón said in a press release. 

In his announcement, Newsom said he would have more “promising numbers” on the frequency of testing on Wednesday. He also alluded to the development of new tests, including one that could deliver a result in 45 minutes. 

In New York City, new cases are doubling every three days, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Newsom in his press conference rolled out a series of other gradual developments in the state’s effort to ramp up capacity to treat what is expected to be tens of thousands of new patients experiencing acute respiratory distress in coming weeks.

The USNS Mercy, the Navy’s 1,000-bed floating hospital ship, will be ready to provide medical relief as soon as this weekend, Newsom said.

The governor also offered high praise for a number of tycoons: Sir Richard Branson, the owner of Virgin Records and Virgin Air, will apparently begin flying in personal protective equipment from Asia to Kaiser Permanente facilities in Oakland, while Tesla founder Elon Musk has paid for the construction of more than a thousand ventilators. 

Newsom noted that the federal government has yet to provide any ventilators to the state from its national stockpile, though Los Angeles County was granted 170. 

“We’re not discouraged by that,” Newsom said, seemingly careful once again not to criticize the administration. “We’re encouraging the federal government and we have direct orders and asks in.”

The state projected that it is short 50,000 hospital beds, a significant increase from last week’s projected shortfall of 20,000 beds. The ramp-up reflects new data from Johns Hopkins University, Facebook, and others over the weekend, Newsom said in a press briefing Monday. 

The state is relying on the hospital system to provide about 30,000 of those beds in existing hospital outbuildings and tents in parking lots. California will have to find 20,000 more beds outside the hospital system.

The federal government promised eight field hospitals in California. Of those, two have arrived and will be erected at the Santa Clara Convention Center and a fairgrounds in Riverside. 

In addition, a temporary medical facility for non-COVID-19 patients is under construction at the Port of Long Beach’s former Sea Launch facility. 

While the state awaits the worst of the health crisis to arrive, the economic crisis is already here. 

Last week, Newsom said, the state’s unemployment insurance system received an average of 114,000 applications per day — between 20 and 50 times the daily average. 

To pay for the dramatic expansion in health care capacity and help reduce the economic fallout, California is awaiting the federal government’s help. Congressional leaders and the White House are reportedly narrowing in on a $2 trillion relief bill that federal lawmakers hope will arrest the national economy’s freefall.

Reporter Nigel Duara contributed to this story.

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Ben Christopher

Ben covers California politics and elections. Prior to that, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and budget. Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, he has written...

Rachel Becker is a reporter with a background in scientific research. After studying the links between the brain and the immune system, Rachel left the lab bench with her master's degree to become a journalist...