With vaccine, California enters new phase in the coronavirus pandemic
With cameras clicking and Gov. Gavin Newsom standing beside her wearing a surgical mask, intensive care nurse Helen Cordova rolled up the sleeve of her blue scrubs Monday afternoon and became one of the first Californians to get a coronavirus vaccine.
“Protect me,” she said with a laugh, just before nurse Marilyn Lansangan jabbed her right deltoid.
Cheers broke out from the small, masked crowd of doctors, nurses and elected officials before the syringe was even out of Cordova’s arm.
The inoculation in a conference room at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center ushered in a hopeful new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has sickened more than 1.6 million Californians and killed more than 21,000.
Cordova and four other healthcare workers were the first people in Los Angeles County outside a clinical trial to get the shots made by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech, marking the start of what will be a long campaign to vaccinate California.
But while the vaccine offers promise, it comes as the U.S. is facing the darkest moment of the coronavirus crisis. On Monday, the U.S. death toll topped 300,000, and California, like much of the nation, is in the throes of the worst wave of the disease.
Record numbers of people are being infected and hospitalized with COVID-19, and space in intensive care units across the state has shrunk to dangerous lows. The situation is especially dire in the San Joaquin Valley, where the availability of intensive care beds this week is zero.
After watching the first vaccinations in Los Angeles, Newsom said he was “enthusiastic that there is light at the end of the tunnel, but mindful that we’re still in the tunnel.”
“We are in the midst of the worst moment of this pandemic,” he said. “So today is hopeful, and it’s reason to be optimistic, but let’s be mindful of where we really are.”
Even for the Kaiser medical staffers who got their shots with the world watching, there was no reprieve. They went right back to work.
“It’s way busier now than it was initially,” said Kim Taylor, a 53-year-old nurse in the hospital’s emergency department who got her vaccine after Cordova.
A Los Angeles Times county-by-county tally tallied 42,129 coronavirus cases across the state Monday. That’s the first time more than 40,000 cases have been reported by the state’s local health agencies in a single day.
When Taylor arrived at the hospital Monday morning, four patients were waiting for a bed in the ICU. Sometimes, she said, they have to wait for days.
After her vaccination, Taylor stood before a bank of television cameras and pleaded with a weary public to continue wearing masks, to stay home for Christmas and to get vaccinated when they can.
“We frontline workers have been working around the clock over the past nine months, sacrificing so much of what we do and love to take care of our patients,” she said. “We’ve been doing this while trying to take care of our own families and keep them safe.... We can’t win this fight alone. We need your help to keep our numbers down.”
Dr. Brian Thompson, a 61-year-old emergency room physician who was next in line for the vaccine, was born at the Kaiser hospital, where he has worked since 1988.
“We’ve gotten through SARS, MERS — nothing compares to this,” said Thompson, who has tended to COVID-19 patients since March, when the initial outbreak forced the state into a lockdown.
The California attorney general’s office issued subpoenas in August as part of an investigation into Amazon’s protocols for protecting employees from COVID-19.
Two other Kaiser employees also received doses Monday: Angela Balam, a worker in environmental services, and Raul Aguilar, a respiratory therapy technician.
Along with Los Angeles, three other California cities received vaccines on Monday: San Diego, San Francisco and Eureka.
Twenty-four additional sites were expected to receive the vaccine Tuesday, followed by five more on Wednesday.
Newsom said California had already received 33,150 doses of the vaccine. The state’s initial allocation — 327,600 doses in all — will go mostly to acute-care hospitals to be administered to healthcare workers, although some counties have said they also will send a portion to skilled nursing facilities.
California is planning on receiving roughly 2.1 million doses by the end of the year, Newsom said. But the vaccine is not expected to be available to everyone who wants it until at least the spring.
After “a gloomy COVID winter,” widespread vaccination will bring years of robust growth to California’s economy, the UCLA Anderson forecast says.
Though development of multiple successful COVID-19 vaccines was rapid — and played out amid the politically charged backdrop of a presidential election — officials and the healthcare workers who got shots on Monday emphasized the vaccinations’ safety and efficacy and urged an anxious public to get inoculated as soon as possible.
“These vaccines have not been infected by politics,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a news conference at the hospital. “You can trust them. You should trust them. I trust them.”
He added: “When my ticket is the right one, I will be ready, probably here at Kaiser, with my family” to get vaccinated.
“To have witnessed the vaccines that we just saw brought a tear to my eye because it shows human ingenuity,” Garcetti said. “It shows the stubbornness that human beings have: We want to survive. We want to thrive. And we will make it through this.”
A working group of scientists and experts representing California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington has reviewed the vaccine and endorsed its safety.
The vaccine is coming during a dark period in California. The state has averaged 32,858 new coronavirus cases a day over the last week — the highest level ever and a 133% increase from two weeks ago, according to data compiled by The Times.
On Monday, California broke yet another record for the largest number of coronavirus cases reported in a single day — 42,129, according to a Times county-by-county tally. That breaks a record last set Dec. 8, when 35,400 cases were counted.
The number of coronavirus-positive patients hospitalized statewide also continues to soar, reaching a record 13,635 as of Sunday. That’s quadruple the number from last month, according to the latest data from the state.
On Monday, San Francisco received 2,000 doses of the vaccine, the city’s chief of public health said.
“We are on the brink of a historic moment for our city: The rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine is beginning,” said Dr. Grant Colfax, director of San Francisco’s Public Health Department.
The vaccine was sent to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, which is run by the city.
“It will be a long rollout — and too late for this surge,” Colfax said, noting that more San Franciscans are infected with the coronavirus than at any previous time during the pandemic.
“I think it is very important to step back for a moment and realize how dire our situation has become,” Colfax said.
During the last week, the city has reported more than 200 new cases of the coronavirus every day, and there are no signs the surge is abating, he said.
San Diego County will initially receive 28,275 doses of vaccine.
Three boxes of doses arrived Monday, the county tweeted. Those will be used both by the county itself — which operates the San Diego County Psychiatric Hospital — as well as by hospitals. Five medical centers are expected to receive allotments from the first batch of vaccines, though it was unclear how many doses they would get.
Three other hospitals, including Rady Children’s Hospital, will receive the vaccine directly from Pfizer. A spokesperson for Rady said the hospital expected to receive the vaccines Tuesday.
In Humboldt County, 975 doses arrived at St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka on Monday.
L.A. County is scheduled to receive 82,875 doses as part of its initial vaccine shipment, officials said
Monday was a “monumental day,” said L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, who just last week fought back tears as she announced that the county’s death toll had surpassed 8,000.
But she stressed that residents need to remain diligent since it will probably be months before vaccines are widely distributed to the general public.
“The choices every person and every business make throughout each day have an impact on what happens in our hospitals,” she said.
“If you’re not playing by the rules, to put it blunt, at this point you’re part of the problem, and you’re contributing to the distressing increases that we see in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.”
ICU availability has tumbled to a scant 2.7% in the Southern California region, a sprawling swath covering Imperial, Inyo, Los Angeles, Mono, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
Health experts fear that the recent massive rise in cases will eventually trigger a tidal wave of hospitalizations and that mortality rates will spike if ICUs can no longer accommodate the sickest patients.
“Obviously we’re all excited to see images of the first vaccinations take place across the country and across Los Angeles. And I share in that joy, and it’s a reminder for all of us that the pandemic some day will come to a close,” said Dr. Christina Ghaly, L.A. County’s director of health services.
“But in the midst of that joy, and that joyous story that’s being told, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we are still ... in the midst of a very deadly and dangerous surge.”
Times staff writers Alex Wigglesworth, Tracy Wilkinson and Maya Lau contributed to this report, as did Jonathan Wosen and Andrew Dyer of the San Diego Union-Tribune.
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