Essential California: The deadliest month

A nurse inside an ICU
A nurse works inside a negative pressure room at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital on Jan. 21 in Los Angeles.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
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Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, Feb. 2, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

January was the pandemic’s deadliest month in California, with nearly 15,000 Californians losing their lives to COVID-19.

[Read the story: “Deadliest days of the pandemic: COVID-19 kills nearly 15,000 in California in January” in the Los Angeles Times]

One out of every 1,000 Californians has now died of COVID-19. But the numbers have been far from random.


Here in Los Angeles County — an epicenter of the coronavirus in California — the COVID-19 death rate for Latino residents is nearly triple that of white residents. The latest surge has also caused a far higher rate of COVID-19 deaths among residents of L.A. County’s poorest neighborhoods compared with those living in wealthy neighborhoods, as my colleagues reported last week.

January’s brutal toll came as the state emerged from the peak of its winter surge, with coronavirus case and hospitalization numbers declining. January was also the deadliest month of the pandemic nationally, with the virus killing more than 95,000 people across the U.S. Like hospitalizations, deaths are a so-called lagging indicator, meaning they reflect exposure to the virus that occurred weeks prior.

What slowed the surge?

In a new story, my colleagues Soumya Karlamangla and Ron Lin report that there is increasing evidence that California’s latest stay-at-home order — which was lifted last week — worked to turn around the deadly surge. The order, which was the subject of heated opposition and vows of resistance from some restaurant owners and elected officials, had been in place in much of the state since early December.

[Read the story: “California’s outdoor dining ban was controversial. Did it help slow the COVID-19 surge?” in the Los Angeles Times]

As Soumya and Ron explain in their story, the implementation of stay-at-home orders and a ban on outdoor dining in late November in L.A. County were followed by a drop in the transmission rate of the virus. The transmission rate — a measure known as “R” that reflects the average number of people that a contagious person infects — peaked in late November and began to fall after L.A. County banned outdoor restaurant dining on Nov. 25 and imposed a local stay-at-home order on Nov. 30.


Here’s how they sum it up: “In other words, within roughly two weeks of the new orders in late November, the county began to turn the corner. Because of the many weeks of lag time between new infections and hospitalizations, the effects of the stay-at-home orders would only become apparent a month later, in early January, when hospitalizations finally began to decline.”

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

LAUSD schools to remain in hard shutdown for the near future: Los Angeles schools will delay in-person student classes and services of any kind while coronavirus infection rates remain high in local communities and teachers remain unvaccinated, Supt. Austin Beutner said Monday. It’s a firm stance that is driving the district toward a mandatory summer session and an extended academic year in 2021-22. Los Angeles Times

Inspector general blames state corrections officials for the coronavirus outbreak at San Quentin prison: California corrections officials ignored the warnings of front-line health workers and pressured them to hastily transfer 189 potentially coronavirus-infected individuals from a Chino men’s prison in May, triggering a deadly outbreak of COVID-19 at San Quentin State Prison, the state watchdog reported. Twenty-eight incarcerated individuals and one staff member died of COVID-19 at San Quentin. Los Angeles Times

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Six people were arrested after temporarily changing the Hollywood sign to read “HOLLYBOOB.” The arrestees were not publicly identified and could not be immediately reached for comment Monday, but according to police, the change was intended to convey a message of breast cancer awareness. Los Angeles Times


L.A.’s lost hot chicken history: Southern California had an early jump on the national embrace of Nashville’s hottest dish. Eater LA

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A recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom has not yet qualified for the ballot, but possible GOP challengers are already announcing their intention to run. Businessman John Cox, who lost to Newsom in the 2018 gubernatorial election, has thrown his hat in the potential ring, as has former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer. Also in the mix: far-right activist and noted conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich. Los Angeles Times

Recall proponents have until mid-March to collect the 1.5 million verified signatures required to put the matter on the ballot. If they succeed, voters will be asked two questions in an election later this year: whether they support the recall of Newsom, and which candidate they want to replace him if the recall is successful.


Someone broke into a preschool and brutally attacked the school’s decades-old pet tortoise. An emergency surgery was successful, and the tortoise, who is adored by the roughly 70 children at the preschool, is expected to recover. Mercury News



Wildfire smoke may carry “mind-bending” amounts of fungi and bacteria, scientists say. Wildfires burned across some 4.2 million acres of California in 2020, with a greater number of residents exposed to smoke for a longer period of time than ever before. Los Angeles Times


Black creatives helped turn Clubhouse into the next tech unicorn. But who stands to gain as the invite-only audio chat app soars? Los Angeles Times

The Patreon model of fine dining? Slots in a star San Francisco restaurant group’s new membership program sold out in weeks, despite the $5,000 price tag. Eater SF

Robinhood’s role in the GameStop saga is causing an uproar among its Silicon Valley peers: “The uproar could threaten Robinhood’s plans to go public, as well as dissuade some potential recruits from joining the company.” San Francisco Chronicle

“Is Sacramento really ‘The Midwest of California’?” A Midwest transplant investigates. Sacramento Bee

A poem to to start your Tuesday: “In Golden Gate Park That Day . . .” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Poetry Foundation


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Los Angeles: sunny, 70. San Diego: partly sunny, 64. San Francisco: morning rain, 55. San Jose: drizzly into the early afternoon, 59. Fresno: partly sunny, 66. Sacramento: morning rain, 57.


Today’s California memory comes from Richard Brenne:

In February of 1979 the mountains of Southern California had a record snowstorm, with even Banning on I-10 getting almost two feet of snow. I took the Palm Springs Aerial Tram and skied by myself to the summit of 10,834-foot Mt. San Jacinto, then skied and hitchhiked to Idyllwild on the opposite side of the mountain, spent $10 for a motel, then hitchhiked to Banning and caught the Greyhound into L.A., staring out the window at the most magical mountain scene. The entire San Gabriel Mountains had snow down to around 4,000 feet and looked like the Alps!

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.