'Not our destiny yet': San Francisco health director projects as many as 1,500 more deaths if COVID-19 surge continues

ByKate Larsen and Jocelyn Fiset KGO logo
Thursday, December 10, 2020
SF says 1,500 more deaths possible if COVID-19 surge doesn't slow
San Francisco's Director of Health Dr. Grant Colfax gave two scenarios for the future of San Francisco during a Wednesday press conference, depending on whether the city is able to decrease its COVID-19 transmission rate.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- During a Wednesday press conference about the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders in San Francisco, Director of Health Dr. Grant Colfax described two different scenarios for the future, depending on if the city is able to slow the surge of new cases.

"They are not our destiny yet," said Dr. Colfax about the trajectory of hundreds of predicted COVID-19 deaths during this third surge. There are currently 123 COVID-19 positive patients in San Francisco hospitals, with numbers showing no signs of decreasing. Thirty of these patients are in the ICU. While he said the number doesn't seem that high, he reminded us "that number is increasing dramatically every day."

MORE: Everything to know about California's confusing new stay-at-home order

San Francisco's current stay-at-home order is being enforced through Jan. 4, 2021 amid a dangerous surge of new cases and decreasing ICU capacity. Dr. Colfax predicted that San Francisco will run out of ICU beds by Dec. 27, just 17 days, if things don't get better.

"To be blunt, we have one chance to turn this serious surge around and that chance is right now. But our window is narrowing and closing fast," said Colfax. "San Francisco, let's seize this moment, let's seize the day and turn this virus back. As you know, we are in the middle of a massive surge in San Francisco of COVID-19 cases. By far the worst surge to date. And I want to stress the significant impact that this surge will have on you, your neighbors and friends and family and future generations if we do not bend the trajectory of this surge right now."

"We are at a crossroads. We still have a window to turn this thing around," he said. He's predicting two different scenarios based on San Francisco's ability to decrease the city's transmission rate.

The first scenario is bleak. Dr. Colfax said that if we do not largely stay at home, he projects coronavirus transmission will continue at a very high rate.

The reproductive rate is currently estimated at 1.5 in San Francisco, meaning for every one person who has COVID-19, they are infecting 1.5 new people on average.

That means the virus is raging throughout the city, and if it continues at that rate, he estimated, on average, that San Francisco will have 1,410 COVID patients on Feb. 10 of next year -- 10 times the number in the hospital now.

In that scenario, there could be an estimated 500 additional deaths on average, but as many as 1,500 additional deaths in addition to the 164 who have already died.

This graph of two COVID-19 projections was shared by San Francisco health officials on Dec. 9, 2020.
This graph of two COVID-19 projections was shared by San Francisco health officials on Dec. 9, 2020.

Dr. Colfax then moved on to describe the second possible scenario, which was much more hopeful.

In this scenario, Dr. Colfax said that if we drive the reproductive rate below 1, it will change San Francisco's future. In the city's peak hospital census, officials estimate there will be 200 COVID-19 positive patients on Dec. 21. The death rate on average would drop to an additional 70. The duration of our surge would be much shorter and we would be able to gradually reopen the city again much faster.

If this scenario comes to fruition, officials estimate the city could begin to reopen again in early 2021.

"The vaccine is on the way but it's not going to get us out of this current surge. We just need to dig a little deeper and do the right thing to turn this surge around," Dr. Colfax added.

Mayor Breed had some positive news to contribute about playgrounds in San Francisco. California updated its stay-at-home order on Wednesday to allow outdoor playgrounds to open in counties any reopening tier, and the city is following state guidance. Mayor Breed said all outdoor playgrounds will reopen by Thursday.

Breed reminded visitors to playgrounds to follow the COVID-19 rules: Do not visit with anyone outside your household, stay 6 feet away from others, wear masks, do not eat or drink, limit child accompaniment to one adult per child.

She did have some other guidance for those who witness anyone breaking the rules. "You are not the park police. If you see someone violating the rules or people are crowding together, you don't have to confront that.... don't get into any confrontations... We are all suffering, have some understanding and some empathy and let the city officials who are responsible deal with it."

Under current stay-at-home orders in San Francisco, almost all non-essential businesses are forced to shut down, with an exception for retail stores. Hair salons, barbershops, nail salons and other personal care services all have to cease operations, both indoors and outdoors. Restaurants can only stay open for takeout or delivery.

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Drone footage compares the streets of San Francisco at the start of the pandemic to now from each stay-at-home order.

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