This Is What Fueled California's Deadly COVID Outbreak, New Study Says

Many coronavirus deaths could have been avoided if the state had been better prepared.

After the number of new COVID cases seemingly dropped from peaks seen in April, many states were hard hit by a resurgence of the coronavirus in July. One of those states being California, which ended up surpassing the case count for the country's first epicenter, New York. Now, California has the most coronavirus cases in the country, with more than 586,400 people infected. But what caused the state's coronavirus numbers to skyrocket? According to a new study, a low supply of personal protective equipment is to blame for California's deadly COVID outbreak.

An estimated 20,860 essential workers and associated household members may not have gotten the coronavirus if California had stockpiled a sufficient amount of personal protective equipment (PPE), a study lead by the University of California (UC) Berkeley Labor Center reported in findings released on Aug. 12.

"It is likely that dozens of deaths among essential workers could have been avoided with proper use of PPE had an adequate stockpile been in place prior to the pandemic start," the authors stated, estimating that nearly 35 percent of healthcare and other essential workers in California who tested positive for COVID-19 were infected at work.

Confident surgeon with medical supplies on trolley. Female healthcare worker is in storage room. She is in hospital.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger was the governor of California, the state spent hundreds of millions of dollars buying and storing equipment for a potential future emergency, the Los Angeles Times reported. However, when Jerry Brown took office in 2011, the state cut off the expense for storing and maintaining this emergency stockpile. So when COVID hit, there were 21 million masks in the state's supply, but all were expired, only approved for low-risk settings, and unsuitable for standard hospital or essential worker use.

According to the study, in a non-pandemic year, a typical hospital uses around 5,000 N95 masks. However, during just March of this year, that demand increased by 17 times—leading the researchers to recommend that the state maintain "a stockpile of at least 12.5 million N95 masks just for California hospital worker use in the first 90 days of a pandemic." In addition, they recommend that for every N95 mask there should also be 2 surgical masks, 1 face shield, 2 isolation gowns, 2 shoe covers, and 9 pairs of gloves.

Unfortunately, the efforts to fulfill the recommended supply as the pandemic hit proved to be costly and unsuccessful. According to the study, a surgical mask cost only 5 cents prior to the pandemic. That price rose to 55 cents per mask once COVID-19 began to permeate through the U.S. And the more protective N95 mask? Those came with a price tag of around $1.27 before the pandemic, but that has since increased to $5.90 per mask.

California even tried to lower the expense when buying PPE by signing a bulk contract with a supplier in early April for 300 million N95 masks at a price of only $3.30 per mask. However, this delivery has been delayed since June, which in effect has "ensured continued PPE shortages in California over the first three months of the pandemic," the study noted.

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Not only that, but the findings also indicate that the state could have saved around $93 million per week in unemployment benefits—which it had to pay to 251,100 California healthcare workers who were out of work when the state suspended elective surgeries and limited other nonemergency care to preserve the masks they did have for coronavirus care.

"It was one shocking number after another as I looked at this," study co-author William Dow, a professor of Health Policy and Management in the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley, told the Los Angeles Times. "Based on these numbers, we should be building a stockpile for the future."

According to the researchers, the "total avoidable social costs of unemployment insurance payments and the value of lost life could easily each reach the hundreds of millions of dollars in the next pandemic," if a suitable stockpile of PPE is not created. And for more on how the country is handling the coronavirus, check out This State Is Now Experiencing the Worst COVID Spike in the U.S.

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