The U.S. West Coast is offering hopeful signs that early social distancing efforts worked, allowing officials to increase hospital capacity and slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

In California, the situation is unstable and state officials fear a sudden increase in patients. Yet distancing measures may help ease a potentially crushing burden on medical institutions, California Governor Gavin Newsom said.

“The stay-at-home order has advanced our efforts in reducing the stress on the system,” Newsom said in a briefing Monday. “It’s bought us time to prepare.”

His optimism is muted, in part, because the latest case numbers may also reflect Covid-19 testing challenges, including delays in returning results, which are widespread but particularly pronounced in California. Roughly 84,000 tests had been conducted in California as of Saturday, nearly 70% of which have results pending, according to the state health department.

Still, in Washington state, additional signs suggest the curve of case growth is flattening in the initial epicenter of the U.S. outbreak. Last week, Governor Jay Inslee reported a small decrease in the pace, largely due to improvements in King County, which includes Seattle, and two others nearby.

As of March 18, each King County patient was transmitting Covid-19 to 1.4 other people on average, down from 2.7 at the beginning of March, according to Daniel Klein, a senior research manager at the Institute for Disease Modeling in Bellevue. The reductions show up in numbers collected by hospitals, too.

The Washington State Hospital Association’s data for King and Snohomish counties also show “the curve is flattening over the last few days,” said Janet Baseman, associate dean for public health practice at the University of Washington School of Public Health. “It’s not accelerating, so that’s great. We’re just not out of the woods.”

The Washington hospital chain that in January treated the first known U.S. patient is seeing a similar trend.

“There’s at least a glimmer of hope,” said Rod Hochman, chief executive officer of Providence St. Joseph Health, which operates in seven Western states. “We’ve been at this for two months. Northwesterners have been working from home. We’ve been doing a lot of social distancing for a while.”

The goal of such measures is to spread the load of illness over a longer period -- flattening the curve, as the now-common term goes. When cases are plotted out over time, officials want them to resemble a long and imposing hill, but one with a gentle incline. They want to avoid a dramatic alpine peak that will overtax hospitals.

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