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A California man was against vaccines. After getting COVID, he reversed course — in a big way.

A couple and nine kids.
Jonathan and Sarah Weltsch with their children.
(Harmony Safier)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, September 7. I’m Justin Ray.

In July, Jonathan Weltsch, 43, of Humboldt County, experienced fatigue while driving, but he didn’t suspect it had anything to do with COVID-19. He went on a job for his fence-making business, thinking he could finish the task quickly, despite not feeling his best.

He ended up passing out.

“It was a 15-minute job. I was just changing a battery,” Weltsch, a father of nine, told The Times. “I laid down on the ground next to the guy’s driveway to undo the cover on the gate. And I woke up two hours later. I guess I was just so out of oxygen, I couldn’t even stay awake.”

His wife, Sarah, insisted he get medical treatment. On July 8, Jonathan went to Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka, where he tested positive for the coronavirus.

“I went to the ER, which was the worst experience of my life,” Weltsch said. “I lay on the floor because I couldn’t sit up. I was so tired, and the security guard kept [saying], ‘Sir, you can’t be on the floor. You need to sit up.’”

He eventually made it into a bed and endured an 18-day hospital stay that would push him to the brink of death. Weltsch said he had to wear a mask that supplied oxygen because breathing was impossible.

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“You try to take it off; you can’t. You’re, like, gasping for air. … It’s basically like somebody is just suffocating you. You feel like you should be able to breathe, but nothing happens,” he said. “It’s basically like drowning.”

A breathing device was inserted into his nasal cavity.

“It felt like they were rubbing my brain or the back of my eyes or something, and it caused my nose to bleed, whatever they did in there. And for the first week, I had a bloody nose,” Weltsch said.

A man walks with a mobile oxygen tank.
Jonathan Weltsch was in the hospital for 18 days after he contracted COVID-19.
(Sarah Weltsch)

Everybody in the family — aside from the 19-year-old, who had moved out of the house — ended up contracting COVID-19. “We wish we’d been vaccinated, because the people that were vaccinated that got the variant did not get as sick as we did,” Sarah Weltsch said. But nobody was hit with a case as severe as Jonathan’s. The hospital told his wife to get his affairs in order.

“There were four days he was in that ICU unit, and they told me he may not get better, and he may not make it through this,” Sarah said. “I was already trying to recover at home, and I was really, really sick. And I was having panic attacks because I couldn’t breathe. I’ve got eight kids at home that I’m trying to take care of, and the youngest was still under 2 months old... It was not a fun place to be. Then, I’m being told my husband is gonna die. It was definitely a dark place.”

The experience has completely changed Jonathan. He used to tell people not to get vaccinated, after reading false claims on social media that the side effects from the shots were worse than contracting COVID-19. Now, he has been using his near-death experience to advise others to get vaccinated, appearing in a local paper and a public service announcement that’s airing on seven radio and two television stations. He plans on getting his vaccination once he’s past the 90-day period his doctor told him he has to wait.

“That’s a hell you don’t want to live,” Weltsch said of his bout with COVID-19. He encourages people to get vaccinated because “anything’s better than being on a breathing machine and having leather for lungs and barely moving. That was just definitely the worst.”

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

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A “variant of interest” has been detected in 167 people over the summer in Los Angeles County, officials said. The coronavirus variant now known as Mu was mostly detected in July, according to analyses completed between June 19 and Aug. 21, the Department of Public Health said. Named after the 12th letter of the Greek alphabet, Mu, which was declared a “variant of interest” by the World Health Organization on Aug. 30, was first identified in January in Colombia, the department said. Los Angeles Times

The coronavirus, as seen in a transmission electron microscope image.
(
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Rocky Mountain Laboratories)

L.A. STORIES

Three people died early Saturday morning in Venice after overdosing, reportedly on fentanyl-laced cocaine. Officer Mike Lopez, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department, said there “was no indication of foul play.” The Los Angeles County coroner’s office identified the deceased as Fuquan Johnson, 43, of North Hollywood; Natalie Williamson, 33, of Los Angeles; and Enrico Colangeli, 48, of Medford, Mass. Johnson was a stand-up comedian and a writer on the TV program “Comedy Parlour Live.” Los Angeles Times

How much wildfire smoke is infiltrating our homes? Wildfires in the state show no signs of becoming less frequent. In a new study, scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, used data from 1,400 indoor air sensors to find out how well residents of the Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas were able to protect the air inside their homes on days when conditions outside was hazardous. They found that by taking steps like closing up houses and using filtration indoors, people were able to drastically reduce the amount of pollution on wildfire days. Berkeley News

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Interest in the recall is muted even in areas where the Republican Party remains a competitive force, such as Orange County and the Inland Empire. A new poll has found that 58% of likely voters statewide want to keep Gov. Gavin Newsom, while 39% support a recall, according to the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. In the Inland Empire, the poll found that 54% oppose the recall and 46% favor it, while in the Orange County/San Diego region, 50% oppose the recall and 45% favor it. Los Angeles Times

Why California liberals turn into raging conservatives over housing. California is one of the bluest states in America. Democrats rarely lose. But California’s housing shortage threatens to make a mockery of its progressive accomplishments. “California’s crisis has no viable solution that doesn’t involve allowing more housing. And that’s a problem, because California’s version of liberalism doesn’t include liberal housing laws,” writes Michael Manville. San Francisco Chronicle

CRIME AND COURTS

Former police officer accused of assault. A little-known incident that took place at the height of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests has led to a police officer facing two misdemeanor charges. Lance Novello, a 19-year veteran of the Petaluma Police Department, faces up to a year in jail, a $10,000 fine and losing the right to bear arms in California after what the Sonoma County district attorney’s office describes as an assault of a student at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Petaluma campus. Details about the incident are limited; the law office representing Novello wouldn’t comment on the case. Novello retired in October 2020. Santa Rosa Press Democrat

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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office correctional lieutenant, 40, dies after five-week COVID battle. Bobby Travelstead, who worked his way up from jail guard to watch commander over a 14-year career, died after contracting COVID-19, the Sheriff’s Department said. “We were always hopeful he would pull through,” said Assistant Sonoma County Sheriff Eddie Engram. KTVU reported that “due to patient privacy, Engram cannot discuss Travelstead’s vaccination status.” KTVU

How Lake Tahoe was spared devastation from the Caldor fire. Things looked grim for South Lake Tahoe as the Caldor fire barreled toward the resort community. Forecasters warned of gusty winds and bone-dry conditions that could push it further toward populated areas. But the danger appeared to have largely abated Saturday, as authorities said the fight against the 214,112-acre blaze seemed to have turned a corner. The fire is now 43% contained. What happened? Officials credit a combination of aggressive firefighting tactics, improved weather conditions and past efforts to prepare the landscape for wildfire. Los Angeles Times

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

‘I started to notice that something was wrong when Britney went on the “Piece of Me” tour in 2018.’ The grassroots #FreeBritney movement has brought her fraught conservatorship into the spotlight. The singer has another court hearing scheduled for Sept. 29 — and throngs of supporters are again expected to gather outside the L.A. courthouse. This is the story of how #FreeBritney grew beyond a catchy tagline in an online fan posting to a bona fide global movement that just might achieve its dream of freeing Britney Jean Spears. Los Angeles Times

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CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: Sunny, 85. San Diego: Debate this map! Overcast, 78. San Francisco: Enjoy some soup! Overcast, 72. San Jose: Go biking! 86. Fresno: 107. Sacramento: 102.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory is from Helen Hartel:

My parents enjoyed taking occasional day trips to Santa Barbara. To me, as a child, the trip there from Mar Vista seemed endless. The winding Sepulveda Boulevard was the only way through the pass. When we reached the site that is now Whizin Market Square, it felt like we had been driving for hours, but I loved it when we would travel through Camarillo because the fragrance of the eucalyptus trees hugging the road that is now the 101 freeway was heavenly. What’s funny to me is that I now live near Whizin, and going to either Mar Vista or Santa Barbara is a moderate Los Angeles drive.

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 to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.


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