Newsletter: Essential California: The real pandemic test is ahead

Commuters in Union Station
Following COVID-19 precautions, commuters wear face coverings at Union Station on Tuesday in Los Angeles.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, Nov. 12, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

There is little certainty in a pandemic. But since the earliest days of the coronavirus — when “social distancing” had yet to enter the lexicon and the postponement of life as we knew it seemed an impossible thought — experts have warned that fall and winter could bring the worst waves of viral spread.

For months, we have barreled like a slow-motion train on a collision course with the calendar. And now here we are — a weary nation rapidly approaching mid-November.

Time has brought the benefit of medical advances, with new treatments available and doctors who are better-versed in treating severe cases. But the Strategic National Stockpile has only 115 million N95 masks — a little more than a third of what the administration had planned to amass by winter, according to the New York Times. In North Dakota, the hospital system is so overburdened that hospital workers who have tested positive for the coronavirus have been told to return to work while infected, so long as they remain asymptomatic. In El Paso, Texas, the four mobile morgues on the ground are no longer enough to meet the unbearable stream of demand.


[Read more: “The Surging Coronavirus Finds a Federal Leadership Vacuum” in the Los Angeles Times]

As my colleague Deborah Netburn writes, the number of new coronavirus cases in the United States each day has ballooned from fewer than 40,000 in early September to more than 100,000 in early November. A new record high was set Wednesday, with the number surpassing 140,000 new coronavirus cases in a single day.

Things are currently far less dire in California, but climbing case counts and hospitalization numbers have sparked new concerns that the state is trending in the wrong direction ahead of what officials have said could be a particularly dangerous period.

[Read the story: “New coronavirus surge pushes California to the brink of 1 million cases” in the Los Angeles Times]

California’s better-than-average mask use and slower reopening of the economy has probably helped keep the state in better shape than some other parts of the nation, as my colleagues report. During a briefing at the beginning of the week, Gov. Gavin Newsom also underscored the state’s significant hospital capacity, testing abilities and PPE stockpiles. The state had more than 2,200 ICU beds available as of Monday, with coronavirus patients occupying only 4% of all hospital beds in the state and 11% of ICU beds, according to Newsom.

But after months of declining infections, there is deep concern ahead.

Health officials in Los Angeles County and Santa Clara County, Northern California’s most populous county, said Monday that it’s clear they’ve entered a new surge. California’s COVID-19 death tally surpassed 18,000 that night.

On Tuesday, state officials announced 11 counties moving backward to more restrictive tiers in California’s reopening system, marking an unprecedented regression with more likely to follow. “We anticipate, if things stay the way they are, that between this week and next week, over half of California counties will have moved into a more restrictive tier,” California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said.

Hospitalizations have begun to rise slightly, but the average daily number of COVID-19 patients in California’s hospitals remains at less than half of what we saw during the summer peak. Deaths remain comparatively low, with California recording the lowest number of COVID-19 deaths that we had seen since March last week. But hospitalizations and deaths are considered lagging indicators of the virus’ spread, meaning they probably indicate exposures that occurred weeks prior.

As my colleagues Ron Lin, Luke Money and Iris Lee write, “a version of the nightmare scenarios seen in Europe and the U.S. Midwest, where hospitals are overwhelmed, could easily happen in California if the state’s residents collectively shrug at the pandemic and dive into large communal Thanksgiving feasts, with family and friends flying from around the country and spending half a day together indoors, giving hugs and taking off their masks.”

[See also: “A winter surge in COVID-19 cases seems inevitable. Can we stop it?” in the Los Angeles Times]

After eight months, we are all fed up with the regulations and exhausted by the rules. But caution in the weeks ahead will be crucial to preventing the worst of what could come.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

A new coronavirus stimulus package looks unlikely until the Biden administration: Hopes that Congress would move swiftly after the election to provide more coronavirus relief for Americans are fading as Senate Republicans continue to resist large spending measures and pressure from President Trump to take action has waned. Los Angeles Times

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Los Angeles elementary schools in predominantly low-income areas were expected to be at the front of the line to bring their youngest students back to campus through the county’s waiver program. But they remain largely absent from the application pool. EdSource

The script stays in Beverly Hills: Robert Evans’ neighbor bought the late producer’s leather-bound “Chinatown” script for $32,000 to keep it “in the neighborhood.” Page Six

President Trump falsely claimed of fraud in L.A. elections. The truth is there were few problems. Los Angeles Times

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“We’ve been waiting for this sort of gender switch for decades now.” Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ entertainment lawyer husband Doug Emhoff plans to leave his high-powered job by inauguration day to focus on his second gentleman role at the White House. First Lady Jill Biden, however, plans to keep her job teaching. Associated Press

Joe Biden, right, shakes hands with Sen. Kamala Harris, as her husband Douglas Emhoff looks on
Joe Biden, right, shakes hands with Sen. Kamala Harris, as her husband Douglas Emhoff looks on in January 2017.
(Kevin Wolf / Associated Press)

Mike Pompeo’s refusal to accept the results of his own country’s presidential vote sparked criticism from former and current U.S. diplomats. A former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations called the secretary of State’s words “incredibly reckless, dangerous, and damaging to U.S. security.” BuzzFeed

Plus, from the annals of lesser-known facts: Despite having represented Kansas in Congress, Pompeo is actually from Orange County — he was born in Orange, grew up in Santa Ana and attended Fountain Valley’s Los Amigos High School. (Hat tip to freelance reporter Matt Tinoco for sharing Pompeo’s O.C. origins.)

What do you call the next tier up from a supermajority? California Democrats — who already compose a supermajority in the state Legislature — appear poised to expand their control. Four state Senate seat races that remain too close to call could potentially flip from red to blue. Los Angeles Times


No more natural gas in new San Francisco buildings starting next year: The San Francisco decision follows Berkeley, which banned gas in new buildings last year. San Francisco Chronicle


The people of Fresno have spoken, and Marie Callender’s will be reopening. After the chain closed its Fresno locations last year, the restaurant’s nearest outpost in Visalia “was suddenly inundated with out-of-town customers looking to get their pie fix.” Fresnans can skip the 50-mile trek come January, when the Shaw Avenue location reopens due to popular demand. Fresno Bee

A bit more involved than mastering that sourdough starter: A Napa family built an alpine-themed roller coaster inspired by Disneyland’s Matterhorn in their backyard during the pandemic. Santa Rosa Press Democrat

What was legendary author Octavia Butler’s early life like in Pasadena? Find out in this excerpt from Lynell George’s wonderful new book “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky.” (I’ll be speaking with Lynell for the L.A. Times Book Club on Nov. 18 at 7 p.m., if you’d like to join us for a virtual conversation!) Los Angeles Times

A poem to start your Thursday: “The Thing Is” by Ellen Bass. Poetry Foundation

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Los Angeles: sunny, 68. San Diego: sunny, 66. San Francisco: partly sunny, 61. San Jose: sunny, 64. Fresno: sunny, 64. Sacramento: partly sunny, 63. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Liz Cheadle:

Growing up in tiny Sierra Madre in the 1960s (pop. 11,000) was to inhabit an isolated pocket of California. To this day, the town prides itself on having no traffic lights. Before the 210 Freeway replaced abandoned railroad tracks in the ‘70s, you couldn’t approach town from the south, and the steep San Gabriels block northern access to this day. Downtown’s Memorial Park was a gathering place for kids, with its Toy Loan, climbing structures and tennis courts. Promptly at 5 p.m., the chimes of the nearby Congregational Church would start playing hymns and we kids would know we absolutely needed to be home before the music stopped fifteen minutes later.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.