Essential California: The post-holiday surge is afoot

A worker in protective gear mans a cleaning cart at a hospital
Maria Padilla cleans the room of a COVID-19 patient in the ICU at Providence St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, Jan. 6, and I’m your guest host, Tony Barboza. I’m filling in for Julia Wick and writing from Long Beach.

We made it through to the New Year, with the surging coronavirus making it the strangest, and perhaps darkest, holiday season in many of our lifetimes. But 2021 isn’t having much of a honeymoon period.

The pandemic in California is already at a point of crisis. Cases, deaths and hospitalizations in L.A. and other areas across the state keep rising, signs that we are well into a new spike in infections from holiday gatherings and travel. It’s the beginning of the dreaded “surge on top of a surge on top of a surge” warned of by health officials.


California broke another single-day record for coronavirus cases. The state logged more than 74,000 confirmed infections on Monday as case numbers jump again after a New Year’s lull. The situation is far worse than a month ago, when about 14,000 cases a day were being recorded.

COVID-19 deaths in L.A. County hit 11,000, with 224 fatalities reported Tuesday. More than 1,000 deaths have been recorded since Dec. 30.

The risk of getting the coronavirus in L.A. County has never been greater. About one in five people tested are positive — five times higher than on Nov. 1. Health officials are urging people to take increased precautions, saying transmission rates are so high that you run the risk of exposure whenever you leave your home. “Assume that this deadly invisible virus is everywhere, looking for a willing host,” said L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.

The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in L.A. County hit another all-time high. That is taxing a medical system that’s already stretched thin, as workers scramble to provide beds, equipment and lifesaving oxygen and try to discharge patients as quickly as possible to free up space for those in the most urgent need of care.

The surge is also hitting California healthcare workers hard, with thousands testing positive in recent weeks. And the outlook is bleak. Officials warned of even darker weeks ahead as a new wave of people infected during the holidays get sick enough to require hospital care.

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

A hospital in Northern California got an unintentional glimpse of what a mass inoculation program might look like. Adventist Health Ukiah Valley Medical Center in Mendocino County had just hours to administer hundreds of doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine after a freezer storing them went kaput. Staff moved quickly to offer injections to healthcare workers and any local resident who showed up in time. “We just wanted to make sure none of this goes to waste,” a spokeswoman said. Los Angeles Times

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The line for COVID-19 testing at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on Monday.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)


Only 60% of Los Angeles Police Department officers and employees surveyed said they would take COVID-19 vaccines when offered, an unscientific internal poll by the department found. Los Angeles Times

Meanwhile, top brass at the Los Angeles Fire Department are offering prizes including a home security system, a fixed-gear bicycle and Airbnb gift cards in an effort to entice firefighters who are unwilling to get COVID-19 vaccines, despite being high-priority front-line workers. Los Angeles Times

The head of L.A. County’s response to the homelessness crisis is stepping down. Phil Ansell, head of the county’s Homeless Initiative, has played an outsize role in the design and implementation of the Measure H sales tax, adopted in 2017. The funds have allowed county to dramatically expand services even as the number of people living on the streets and in shelters continues to increase. Los Angeles Times

Nicola Hanna, the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, also submitted his letter of resignation, earlier this week. He plans to return to private practice. Los Angeles Times

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California’s next secretary of state wants to people to understand “how fragile the democracy is.” A conversation with Assemblywoman Shirley Weber of San Diego, who is poised to be the first Black Californian to serve as the state’s top election official. CalMatters

We now know the identity of the mysterious donor who gave $500,000 to the effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom. The man behind the group Prov. 3:9 LLC is John Kruger, an Orange County-based investor who opposes the governor’s actions to restrict religious gatherings during the pandemic, the organization announced in a statement to media outlets Tuesday. The disclosure came a day after a complaint by Ann Ravel, a former chair of the Federal Election Commission, that alleged a “shell company” was being used to hide the identity of its donors. Sacramento Bee

A former Oakland building inspector accused of accepting bribes from property owners in exchange for a “pass” on certain inspections was fined $55,000 by the city’s public ethics commission. The case is part of a larger, ongoing federal investigation that involves another former building inspector also alleged to have taken bribes. Mercury News


Numbers aren’t the only measure of what we’ve lost to COVID-19, Times columnist Nita Lelyveld writes. So she started reading as many stories as she could about the victims and their lives, holding onto the details as a way of “refusing to grow numb to the numbers, of daily acknowledging the depth of our diminishment that they represent.” Los Angeles Times

Increasing indoor ventilation and measuring the exchange of fresh air using carbon dioxide monitors could be key to curbing the spread of the coronavirus. San Francisco Chronicle

Community Hospital in Long Beach reopened to patients in an effort to relieve crowding at L.A. County hospitals hard hit by the coronavirus. Though the facility will not accept COVID-19 patients, it has space for 40 additional patients and will provide 11 intensive care unit beds for people transferred from nursing homes and other local hospitals. Los Angeles Times


What will California need this summer to avoid blackouts and other strains on the power grid seen during last year’s record-breaking heat waves? Programmable thermostats, solar-charged batteries and electric cars, among other household devices, will play an increasingly important role, alongside big power plants and transmission lines, in balancing supply and demand for electricity. Los Angeles Times


Today is El Día de los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day. It’s an occasion for many families to slice into a traditional rosca de reyes, the wreath-shaped and candied fruit-adorned sweet bread, and see who gets the tiny plastic baby Jesus, or Jesuses, hidden inside. L.A. Taco has the dark origin story of the rosca de reyes and a guide to where to find them locally. L.A. Taco

More than 400 workers at Google and other units of its parent company, Alphabet, have signed up to be part of a labor union. The campaign is the culmination of years of walkouts, petitions and public discussions about race, ethics and other issues, and marks a rare effort to organize a major U.S. tech company. Los Angeles Times

Libraries are getting creative with pandemic-friendly ways to help people keep reading. The Santa Maria Public Library has started a sidewalk pickup service offering prepackaged paper bags, each containing five books of mixed genres. The best part? No due dates. “Guests are welcome to keep the Grab-and-Go books as long as they would like.” KEYT-TV

L.A.’s underground party scene continues even as the pandemic’s death toll mounts. Furtive, rule-flouting nightclubs are operating using mass text messages and secret passwords, with little intervention by law enforcement. Los Angeles Magazine

Actress and model Tanya Roberts, known for her roles in the James Bond film “A View to a Kill” and “That ‘70s Show” died at age 65 in Los Angeles. The official announcement came not long after her publicist mistakenly reported she he had died earlier in the week. Los Angeles Times


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Los Angeles: mostly sunny, 72. San Diego: mostly sunny, 66. San Francisco: mostly cloudy with a chance of rain, 58. San Jose: partly sunny, 61. Fresno: mostly cloudy, 57. Sacramento: cloudy with a chance of rain, 54. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Ona Russell:

Up at 4 a.m., bags packed, in our jammies, we hop into the Olds and head north. Before the 5 expansion, an eight-hour trip. Sun breaks over the Grapevine. Onion scent in Bakersfield, cow manure in Fresno, my brother and I fight for dominance and a doughnut in the back seat. Dad yells, says vacation canceled, if we don’t get along. Just then, the Bay Bridge, like the gates of Oz, comes into view. We obey, the promise of cable cars and sourdough, of especially a ride down the “crookedest street in the world” intact. Just don’t call it Frisco.

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.