Essential California: The South Africa variant arrives

Motorists line up to take COVID-19 tests at at Long Beach City College-Veterans Memorial Stadium.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, Feb. 11, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

“The issue of mutations is top of mind, not only here in the state of California and across this nation, but increasingly around the globe,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday.

Viruses constantly replicate and mutate, and SARS-CoV-2 is no different. The arrivalof the U.K. variant, which is believed to be 50% more transmissible than the conventional variety of the coronavirus, has already sparked concerns in California. Officials have projected that it will become the dominant coronavirus nationwide by the end of March. But the B.1.1.7 variant, as its officially known, is far from the only mutation with which we have to contend.

On Wednesday, the first cases of infection caused by the South Africa coronavirus variant were confirmed in California.

The B.1.351 variant, which is now dominant in South Africa, has spread to more than 30 other countries. Both California cases were found in the Bay Area, with one in Alameda County and the other in Santa Clara County, according to Newsom.


[Read the story: “First infections with South Africa coronavirus strain found in California” in the Los Angeles Times]

During a briefing Wednesday, Newsom said that there are now 30 labs around the state doing genomic testing on virus samples. As of Wednesday afternoon, the state had recorded 159 identifiable cases of the U.K. variant and 1,203 identifiable cases of the West Coast variants, along with the two South African variant cases. No cases of infection caused by the Brazilian variant have yet been identified in the state.

What to know about the different variants

New variants can raise fears about reinfection and vaccine efficacy. (As my colleagues report, currently available vaccines are believed to be highly effective against both the conventional variety of the coronavirus and the U.K. strain, but there is concern about diminished effectiveness of the current vaccines against the South African variant.)

So how scared should you be about variants lengthening the course of the pandemic? My colleague Deborah Netburn reached out to epidemiologists, doctors and infectious disease experts to find out. The good news, as she put it, is that “none of them are freaking out.”

[Read the story: “Why experts aren’t panicking about new coronavirus variants” in the Los Angeles Times]


In her conversations, Deborah found that the variants do pose challenges, but they haven’t completely changed the game — or pushed us into a perma-pandemic. And even if a variant is more resistant to the first generation of COVID-19 vaccines, that doesn’t mean the vaccines are useless.

“Even in years when we don’t get a great match with the flu vaccine, we see some benefit of immunization,” said Dr. Annabelle De St. Maurice, who leads pediatric infection control for UCLA Health. “And that’s the same for SARS CoV-2. Even if the vaccines are less efficient, getting the vaccine is better than not getting the vaccine.”

The most pressing danger of the U.K. variant — which will likely soon be the dominant one — is that it’s more transmissible, and the more the virus spreads, the more mutations can develop. As my colleague Melissa Healy reported last month, experts have also warned that U.K variant’s increased transmissibility will drive up the proportion of the population that needs to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity and bring the pandemic to a halt.

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

House prosecutors lay out evidence against Trump: With graphic footage of the the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and repeated use of former President Trump’s own words, House impeachment managers laid out their case Wednesday, accusing him of engaging in a “deliberate, planned and premeditated” effort to incite a mob to attack Congress. Los Angeles Times

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Facing a shortfall of Moderna vaccine doses, L.A. officials plan to close five city-run inoculation sites — including Dodger Stadium — for at least two days beginning Friday. The mayor described the city’s vaccine supply as uneven and unpredictable, but reiterated that anyone who has received a first dose of the Moderna vaccine will receive a second dose. Los Angeles Times

Some Los Angeles County teachers, food workers and first responders could begin receiving COVID-19 vaccinations in two to three weeks — a major step as the populous region works to ramp up its immunization rollout. Los Angeles Times

Last year, 1,383 people experiencing homelessness died in Los Angeles County. Data detailing where and how people died, as well as personal information about the deceased, reflect the complexity of homelessness in Los Angeles. Crosstown LA

Everything you should know about Hollywood’s new book boom: Changes in television, film and book publishing, including the pandemic, have driven a boom in book adaptations. Here’s a guide to the pipeline. Los Angeles Times

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President Biden ended the travel ban on Muslim-majority nations. But separated families remain in limbo. Los Angeles Times



Second Niece Meena Harris has a personal brand. Some fear she is profiting from her Aunt Kamala Harris’ office. Los Angeles Times

Screenshot of a smiling young woman
Meena Harris, pictured while addressing the Democratic National Convention, has meshed her personal brand with her aunt’s ascendant political career. After Biden and Harris won the election, the transition team’s ethics lawyers told Meena she could no longer produce clothing or write new books with Kamala Harris’ name or likeness, according to a White House official.
(Handout / DNCC via Getty Images)

Rep. Kevin McCarthy attended his son’s maskless wedding ceremony in California amid a deadly COVID-19 surge. The ceremony took place in Cayucos on the day that California announced a stay-at-home order for two regions in the state, including San Luis Obispo County. Los Angeles Times

How Republicans plan to sink Xavier Becerra’s nomination: The GOP is fixated on rejecting Biden’s pick to helm the Department of Health and Human Services, but not for the type of personal failings that typically doom early nominees. It is Becerra’s perceived political and policy sins that are fueling the bid to block him. Los Angeles Times

Biden officially nominated California Labor Secretary Julie A. Su as the second in command at the U.S. Department of Labor, even as she faces criticism from some in her home state for ongoing troubles at the Employment Development Department, which has delayed approving unemployment benefits while paying out billions of dollars on fraudulent claims. Los Angeles Times


The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department wanted a helipad near Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s home. It started building even after the property owner said no. Los Angeles Times



In a first for California, Sacramento is poised to allow apartments in single-family home neighborhoods. In an unprecedented move, Sacramento is on the verge of approving a plan that would make the city the first in California, and one of the first in the country, to end zoning that permits only one single-family home on a property. Los Angeles Times

Larry Flynt, the Hustler Magazine founder and unlikely First Amendment champion, has died at 78. Flynt was also one of the 135 candidates who ran in California’s 2003 gubernatorial recall election. Los Angeles Times

San Francisco school board votes to strip Lowell High of its performance-based admissions system. One of the top-performing public high schools in the country will no longer admit students based on academic performance, ending more than a century of admissions based on test scores and grades. San Francisco Chronicle

Oaklanders organize mutual aid efforts in the face of Chinatown attacks. A group calling itselfCompassion in Oakland is also asking for volunteers to escort Chinatown’s elders on walks and errands, among other efforts. KQED

Wild horses for sale, $1 each: You’ll have to drive to a national forest in the northeastern corner of California to pick up your equine. KRCR

A poem to to start your Thursday: “Act III, Sc. 2” by Jorie Graham. Poetry Foundation


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Los Angeles: partly sunny, 70. San Diego: sunny, 64. San Francisco: rain, 55. San Jose: some rain, 61. Fresno: gray, 64. Sacramento: rain, 57. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Sean Gallagher

I grew up in Cambria, where back in the day you were either a hunter or a peacenik. My favorite uncle Uncle Donnie was an abalone diver out of San Simeon and an avid hunter. When I was 9, he and his best friend Georgie Mitchell, a rascal who “liked fast cars and loose women,” he liked to say, took me hunting for my first time in the Santa Lucia Mountains near Army base Hunter Ligget. Uncle Donnie drove a restored Jeep 4x4. I shot at a couple of bucks and missed them. The next day Uncle Donnie and Georgie climbed down into a box canyon and drove the deer towards me. I shot at six and missed them all as they ran past me. He and Georgie couldn’t believe it. He looked angry as he questioned me ... I looked at the ground and started to cry. He put his hand on my head. “You just didn’t want to shoot them did you, Seanie boy?” “No, sir,” I said, looking down at my tennis shoes through my tears. For the remainder of the trip, we just drove around the beautiful mountains and valleys that only hardcore hunters and marijuana farmers ever got to see. It was the best three days of my life.

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.