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Coronavirus Today: Mask up, California!

Good evening. I’m Amina Khan, and it’s Tuesday, Nov. 17. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

Grab your masks, your bandanas and even your old T-shirts because the face-covering situation just got serious. Californians are now required to wear face coverings whenever they’re outside their homes, with a few exceptions.

Monday’s expanded order from state health officials means that residents must cover their faces unless they are:

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• alone in a car or only with those in their household
• working alone in an office or room
• outdoors and staying at least six feet away from others not in their household
• obtaining a service involving their nose or face
• actively eating or drinking (so long as they maintain physical distance)

Californians are only exempt from the order if they:

• are younger than age 2
• have a disability or medical/mental health condition that prevents them from wearing a face covering
• are hearing-impaired or are communicating with someone who is

There’s one last exemption, which applies to those “for whom wearing a face covering would create a risk to the person related to their work, as determined by local, state or federal regulators or workplace safety guidelines,” according to the California Department of Public Health.

The new state mandate doesn’t specify any particular kind of face covering — all that’s required is that the nose and mouth are covered. “A cloth face covering may be factory-made or sewn by hand or can be improvised from household items such as scarfs, T-shirts, sweatshirts, or towels,” the state says.

Monday’s mandate replaces the one issued in June, which had required Californians to wear face coverings only in specified settings that were considered high risk, such as when shopping, taking public transportation or seeking medical care.

It’s unclear how — or even if — the new orders will be enforced. After the first mask mandate, some cities threatened to cite or fine people who weren’t wearing face coverings, but many law enforcement agencies said they would focus on educating those folks instead.

Health experts say that wearing a mask — in combination with other straightforward measures such as maintaining a minimum 6-foot distance between non-household members, regularly washing your hands and staying home when you’re sick — are crucial defenses against the virus and key strategies in preventing its spread.

These measures are all the more important now as California is facing the steepest surge in coronavirus infections that the state has ever seen.

Monday saw 13,412 new cases recorded — a jaw-dropping single-day record, according to The Times’ coronavirus tracker. Weekly infections across the state have more than doubled from 22,600 last month to 56,000 for the seven-day-period that ended Sunday.

A jump in new cases is usually followed by a rise in hospitalizations a few weeks later. The latest tally shows there are 3,852 COVID-19 hospitalizations statewide, up 48% from just two weeks ago.

The news comes the same week that officials announced a dramatic rollback in reopenings across much of the state. Now, 94% of Californians live in counties that are in the strictest, purple tier of the state’s reopening roadmap. Many businesses in those counties that had not previously experienced the purple tier will have to suspend or severely limit indoor operations.

Why the surge? Health authorities suspect that months of pandemic restrictions have caused people to relax their guard at a crucial moment. Now, with Thanksgiving approaching, officials are worried that residents will relax further, leading to even more infections in the holiday season’s wake.

“We know when people gather with people they don’t live with, often our close friends, even family members, we think that it’s OK to put your guard down. We think it’s OK to take off your mask even for a little bit to enjoy a drink or enjoy a meal,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s health secretary. “But it’s exactly those moments that might create a high transmission risk. So we urge you to consider how you engage with friends and family over the weeks to come to keep transmission rates low.”

In Los Angeles County, new restrictions are coming. Starting Friday, restaurants and nonessential retail establishments will be barred from providing outdoor service after 10 p.m. Outdoor social gatherings will be capped to three households, with 15 people at most. And capacity will be limited for outdoor dining and at businesses now allowed to operate indoors.

And if cases and hospitalizations keep surging, expect more extreme measures, officials warn — including some type of return to the “safer at home” order of the spring.

By the numbers

California cases and deaths as of 1:29 p.m. PST Tuesday:

More than 4,300 new cases and 13 new deaths related to the coronavirus reported today as of 1:29 p.m. Pacific.

Track the latest numbers and how they break down in California with our graphics.

See the current status of California’s reopening, county by county, with our tracker.

California's reopening tiers map
(Los Angeles Times Graphics)

A description of the four tiers California uses to determine when counties can let businesses open, based on coronavirus risk

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Across California

Some Angelenos seem to think they’ve found a clever way to get together with friends and party like it’s 2019: They take coronavirus tests ahead of time. If the results are negative, they feel free to attend dinner parties without needing to wear masks or keep their distance from one another.

That’s absolutely the wrong thing to do, according to Barbara Ferrer, Los Angeles County’s director of public health.

Ferrer said she’s heard of groups of young adults going to get tested on a Thursday, hoping to get the results by Saturday morning and have all afternoon to finalize their plans.

“That doesn’t work. It’s not a good idea. It’s not effective and you really are in some ways wasting a valuable resource,” Ferrer said.

In fact, this behavior can produce super-spreading events that transmit the highly contagious virus far and wide. That’s because the tests can provide misleading results — which means Angelenos, armed with a false sense of security, are taking dangerous risks based on “false-negative” tests.

For example, if a person is tested shortly after becoming infected but before the virus has had a chance to make enough copies of itself, the results would come back negative. There’s also the risk that a person is exposed after getting a test and is contagious by the time the party is held on a Saturday.

Coronavirus cases have jumped across all groups in Los Angeles County, but the rise is particularly “alarming” among young adults, who are driving the outbreak, Ferrer said. Adults ages 18 to 29 make up the largest share of newly diagnosed coronavirus cases in L.A. county. The case rate for that age group has more than doubled in the last month, from 11.5 per 100,000 residents to 25 per 100,000 residents.

Indeed, their behavior is literally killing L.A. County’s elderly residents, who are far more vulnerable to COVID-19.

“This is most unfortunate, and it serves as a stark reminder that young people are spreading the virus with disastrous results for our elderly,” Ferrer said.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, meanwhile, has pleaded with residents to stay home for the next few weeks, except for accessing essential services, food and outdoor exercise.

“This is a different kind of moment, a new level of danger,” Garcetti said. “If we don’t make these decisions now, there really is only one outcome: We will almost certainly have to shut things down again. And more people will get sick and die.”

Some state legislators don’t seem to be heeding the stay-at-home advice — more than a half-dozen California lawmakers are gathering for an annual conference in Maui this week. The policy conference is sponsored by the Independent Voter Project, a nonprofit group, and some legislators’ travel expenses are being picked up by the hosts.

In the past, the annual gathering has seen up to 25 California lawmakers attend. It’s been criticized because it’s partly financed and attended by special interests such as businesses and labor groups. With Gov. Gavin Newsom urging Californians to stay put, the Hawaii trip is rubbing some critics the wrong way — especially after Newsom caught flak for attending a party at a Napa Valley restaurant with people from other households.

Resources

— For general safety, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds (here’s a super-fun how-to video). Stop touching your face, and keep your phone clean. Practice social distancing, maintaining a six-foot radius of personal space in public. And wear a mask if you leave home. Here’s how to do it right.
— Watch for symptoms including fever, cough, shortness of breath, chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and loss of taste or smell. If you’re worried you might be infected, call your doctor or urgent care clinic before going there.
— Need a COVID-19 test? Here’s how to receive a free test if you’re in L.A. County. And here’s a map of testing sites across California.
— Here’s how to care for someone with COVID-19, from monitoring their symptoms to preventing the virus’ spread.
— If your job has been affected by the pandemic, here’s how to file for unemployment.
— Here are some free resources for restaurant workers and entertainment industry professionals having trouble making ends meet.
— Advice for helping kids navigate pandemic life includes being honest about uncertainties, acknowledging their feelings and sticking to a routine. Here’s guidance from the CDC.
— In need of mental health services? Here are resources for coping during the crisis from the CDC and the L.A. County Department of Mental Health. L.A. County residents can also call (800) 854-7771 or text “LA” to 741741.
— For domestic violence victims, the pandemic can pose a “worst-case scenario,” advocates say. If you or someone you know is experiencing such abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or L.A. County’s hotline at 1-800-978-3600. Here are more ways to get help.

Around the nation and the world

Election officials across the United States went to great lengths to make voting sites as safe as possible during the pandemic. Still, despite those efforts, some poll workers who came into contact with voters have tested positive for the coronavirus, including more than two dozen in Missouri and others in New York, Iowa, Indiana and Virginia.

Because COVID-19 is spreading so fast in the U.S., the infections can’t be definitively tied to polling places, which implemented a range of precautions, including establishing social-distancing rules, erecting protective barriers and stocking up on sanitizer, masks and gloves. No major reports of safety lapses or risky voting conditions have emerged.

But hundreds or even thousands of people passed through voting sites. And cases continued to crop up as election workers counted ballots.

Georgia’s top election official went into quarantine after his wife tested positive for the coronavirus, just as a hand tally for the presidential race began. In New York, more than 1,600 people who voted at a site in the Hudson Valley on election day have been advised to get tested after a poll worker tested positive. In Indiana, a poll worker who later tested positive did not show symptoms, practiced social distancing and “wore a mask at all times” on election day, officials said — but as a precaution, seven colleagues are quarantining for two weeks.

The full effect of in-person voting nationwide may not be known for weeks.

While many celebrate the promising early results of two COVID-19 vaccine candidates, business columnist Michael Hiltzik wants to know the answers to some cold, hard questions about delivering a vaccine to the public: how fast, how broadly and at what price?

Hiltzik asks why vaccine makers get to keep their “stranglehold” on their products when their success has been underpinned by American taxpayer dollars. Moderna has received close to $1 billion in federal funding, and while Pfizer says it turned down funding from a key government vaccine development program, it has still received a $1.95-billion government contract to manufacture 100 million doses of its product (if proved effective).

It’s “an old story in the pharmaceutical industry, which has profited from billions of dollars in government scientific research without returning much, if anything, to the taxpayers,” he writes.

That mismatch may become an even greater point of contention if the drug industry hinders efforts to roll out COVID-19 cures around the world in order to protect their own bottom lines, he added: “The potential damage to the fight against COVID-19 may already be visible on the horizon.”

Across the pond, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this weekend that he has gone into self-isolation after learning that he came into contact with a colleague who tested positive for the coronavirus. Johnson had met with a small group of lawmakers for about a half hour on Thursday, including one who later developed COVID-19 symptoms and tested positive.

“He will carry on working from Downing Street, including on leading the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic,” a statement from his office said, adding that the prime minister was well and did not have any COVID-19 symptoms.

Johnson was hospitalized in intensive care for three nights in April after contracting COVID-19 himself. He thanked health workers for saving his life and said that for 48 hours during his hospital stay, “things could have gone either way.”

“It actually doesn’t matter that I’ve had the disease and I’m bursting with antibodies,” he said in a Monday video message. “We’ve got to interrupt the spread of the disease” — and one of the ways of doing that is self-isolating for 14 days after coming into contact with someone who has tested positive, he said.

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from the many readers who want to know: When will the COVID-19 vaccine be available, and how soon can I get it?

The answers come courtesy of my colleague Thomas Curwen, who lays out what you need to know about the front-running vaccine candidates from Pfizer and Moderna.

If the Food and Drug Administration authorizes one or both of them for emergency use, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will oversee the distribution to the public. States will develop their own plans as well, says Curwen, who spoke to several experts on the subject.

“While there’s still a lot of uncertainty, it’s already clear that there won’t be enough vaccines to go around at first,” he writes.

Both companies have indicated that they will have at least 20 million doses by the end of the year. That’s not enough to vaccinate more than a fraction of the U.S. population, which is currently north of 330 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s population clock.

For now, it looks like healthcare workers, who face high risk of exposure in their line of work, will be prioritized. So will older people and those with underlying medical conditions, who are more vulnerable to the ravages of the disease.

Experts say it will take until late spring or early summer to produce enough vaccines to immunize a majority of U.S. residents.

Our reporters covering the coronavirus outbreak want to hear from you. Email us your questions, and we’ll do our best to answer them. You can find more answers in our Frequently Asked Questions roundup and in our reopening tracker.

For the most up-to-date coronavirus coverage from The Times over the weekend, visit our homepage and our Health section, sign up for our breaking news alerts, and follow us on Twitter and on Instagram.


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