Coronavirus Today: Our best hope to stem the spread

Good evening. I’m Amina Khan, and it’s Monday, Nov. 23. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

The third wave of the pandemic is upon us. California has now logged six straight days with at least 10,000 newly confirmed coronavirus cases — a streak without precedent since the outbreak began. Health officials across California say a devastating wave of holiday-fueled coronavirus cases is looming, and they braced for impact this past weekend by putting additional lockdown measures into place.

The new measures — including a statewide limited late-night curfew that went into effect Saturday and the suspension of outdoor dining in Los Angeles County — have been met with skepticism from pandemic-weary residents who wonder how effective the new measures will be. But experts say these restrictions are the best hope we have for getting this rapidly spreading virus under control.

“There is no question new restrictions will hurt already struggling businesses and bring more misery to people already feeling isolated by the pandemic,” my colleague Rong-Gong Lin II writes. “But there is also evidence that the moves are logical as California enters a dangerous phase of the pandemic, with infections raging and the holidays approaching.”

That’s because there’s good reason to suspect that it helps to shut down public places where people gather in close proximity and don’t wear masks because they’re eating and drinking.

Likewise, late-night gatherings are usually places of “reduced inhibition and reduced likelihood” of wearing masks and staying distanced from others, said acting state public health officer Dr. Erica Pan.


Others were more blunt.

“It’s because bad behavior goes up in the evening, at least as I recall from college,” said Dr. George Rutherford, epidemiologist and infectious diseases expert at UC San Francisco.

As of Sunday night, the state’s seven-day average of new daily coronavirus cases was close to 11,500. That’s triple what it was roughly a month ago. The average number of deaths has risen by about 75% in the past 10 days alone, up to 66 deaths a day for the seven-day period that ended Sunday. That compares with 38 reported deaths the week before.

Nationally, the average number of weekly deaths is at its highest point since May, as infections rise in nearly all states.

So far, more than 1.1 million Californians have been infected with the coronavirus, and more than 18,700 have died. Whether the state’s curfew helps keep those numbers from spiking depends on whether Californians abide by it, said Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s health secretary.

This is about coming together,” he said. “This is about us deciding to do some things ... so we can get this under control.”

In Los Angeles County, another record-high number of daily coronavirus cases Monday pushed the region over its threshold for issuing a new stay-at-home order. But what that might look like and when it might happen is unclear.

The county director of public health, Barbara Ferrer, said it would be less restrictive than the one issued in the spring, and that officials would work with the Board of Supervisors to develop it. The board is scheduled to meet Tuesday.

By the numbers

California cases and deaths as of 2:37 p.m. PST Monday:

More than 6,300 new cases and 10 new deaths were reported Nov. 23 as of 2:37 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

California’s economy had started to look like it was on the mend in October, when employers brought back tens of thousands of furloughed workers. While those were good gains, they made up less than half of the jobs lost in the spring, when the pandemic hit the Golden State hard.

In April and May, California’s unemployment rate hit 16.4%, way above the 3.9% the state had enjoyed the previous fall. By September, it had dropped to 11%, then fell even lower, to 9.3%, last month.

While that may not sound great, consider this: Last month, the number of California jobs grew at twice the national rate — marking the state’s third-highest single-month gain in at least three decades.

“We must be California dreaming,” said Loyola Marymount University economist Sung Won Sohn. But don’t get your hopes up, he warned: As the virus surges and new business restrictions take effect, “the dream won’t last.”

The recovery is fragile at best,” Sohn said. “Unlike the first wave in March and April, there is no massive government stimulus on the horizon to cushion the economy.”

That means no more $1,200 stimulus checks for laid-off workers, no more weekly unemployment supplements and the end of major loan programs for struggling businesses.

A study released last week by UCLA’s California Policy Lab estimated that nearly 750,000 Californians will stop receiving unemployment insurance benefits by the end of next month when two other programs funded by Congress’s $2.2-trillion CARES Act also expire, one of which is aimed at self-employed workers and independent contractors.

“The indifference of the federal government and the U.S. Senate to approve a new rescue package will slow down the recovery,” said Pomona College economist Fernando Lozano.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and his family are in a 14-day quarantine after learning that three of his children were exposed to a California Highway Patrol officer who tested positive for the coronavirus, the governor’s office said Sunday. The infected CHP officer provides security for the governor, his wife and four children, whose ages range from 4 to 11.

Newsom reportedly learned about the possible exposure on Friday evening, and family members were tested for the virus Sunday morning. Those results came back negative, but they‘ll continue to get tested regularly, his office said.

A few days earlier, Newsom’s office confirmed that a classmate of one of his children had tested positive. Newsom’s child was quarantining at home after testing negative for the virus twice, and other family members also tested negative last week.

Three of Newsom’s children attend a private elementary school in Sacramento that held classes on campus five days a week. The youngest sibling is in pre-kindergarten.

Here’s one small shred of good news for Angelenos looking for a new lease: Apartment rents in L.A. County have dipped 5.3% since the beginning of the year as landlords struggle to fill vacant units. But the reverse seems to be happening in the Inland Empire. Rent for vacant units in Riverside County jumped 6.9% between January and October, according to rental website and data provider Apartment List. In San Bernardino County, it shot up by 9.1%.

That dichotomy is repeating itself in many regions across the country, and it’s likely a reflection of people’s choices during the pandemic, experts say.

It’s still too early for solid data to back this up, but anecdotal evidence points to some folks leaving big-city apartments for more space farther away while they‘re working from home. And those who can afford to buy a house are doing so now.

Another factor: The pandemic has fewer renters relocating to big cities, including people who are changing careers or moving to the city for college.

“It’s not so much that people are moving from L.A. to Rancho Cucamonga, but rather the people who were planning to move to L.A. are thinking, ‘Do I really need to move to L.A.,’” or can they move to the suburbs?” said Apartment List research associate Rob Warnock.


— 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

More than 2 million Americans headed through U.S. airports’ security lines on Friday and Saturday, according to the Transportation Security Administration. That’s in spite of the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised Americans to skip Thanksgiving travel this year and avoid spending the holiday with people outside their households.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, said Sunday that he was concerned that Thanksgiving-fueled crowding at U.S. airports could lead to a dangerous situation.

People at airports “are going to get us into even more trouble than we’re in right now,” Fauci told CBS’s “Face the Nation.” The new cases they trigger won’t become evident for weeks, but when they do, it will make things “very difficult” when the December holidays roll around.

A vaccine candidate from Oxford University and drugmaker AstraZeneca is hot on the heels of candidates from Pfizer and Moderna. The AstraZeneca offering was up to 90% effective in late-stage trials, officials said, and that offers hope that a cheaper, more practical vaccine could be available soon.

Trials of the new vaccine candidate tested two different dosing plans. The first one involved a half-dose of the vaccine followed by a full dose at least one month later — a regimen that was 90% effective, researchers said. The second regimen, using two full doses one month apart, was 62% effective.

“These findings show that we have an effective vaccine that will save many lives,” said Andrew Pollard, chief investigator for the trial.

Early data on vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna indicate that they are approximately 95% effective. But AstraZeneca‘s offering has one big advantage: It can be transported under “normal refrigerated conditions” of about 36 to 46 degrees, according to the company. Pfizer, on the other hand, plans to distribute its vaccine with special “thermal shippers” that use dry ice to keep their contents at a frigid minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit.

The new vaccine is also the cheapest so far. The company has pledged not to profit on the vaccine during the pandemic, and has priced it at about $2.50 per dose. Pfizer’s vaccine costs about $20, and Moderna’s is $15 to $25, depending on the contract.

In Russia, hospitals are struggling to find hospital rooms for COVID-19 patients as cases surge across the country.

Preschool nurse Yekaterina Kobzeva learned that the hard way when she called an ambulance after having trouble breathing. A scan revealed damage from pneumonia to 50% of her lungs, an indication that she likely had the coronavirus. Paramedics then drove her around for hours as seven hospitals turned her away due to a lack of beds.

It took four days for her to find one. The journey sent her through several “circles of hell,” as the 60-year-old Kobzeva put it.

Russia’s healthcare system is huge but underfunded, and the pandemic’s repeated surges have taken their toll as hospitalizations and deaths continue to mount. Overall, the country has recorded more than 2 million cases and more than 35,000 deaths — though experts say that all numbers worldwide understate the pandemic’s true toll.

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from readers who want to know: How safe is it to go to indoor movie theaters during the pandemic?

My colleague Michael Ordoña spoke with a number of experts about the possible risk, taking into account mask mandates, seating plans that comply with social distancing guidelines, ventilation and other concerns. A few points seem to stand out.

First off, proper mask use is key. However, many theaters allow patrons to remove their face coverings briefly while consuming food and beverages. That mask-off time is a big risk factor in a movie setting, said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Assn.

“Just like in a restaurant, you take a mask off to eat popcorn or drink, etc.,” Georges said. “And of course, when you do that, if you’re infected, you will expel virus” — especially, he noted, if you laugh or scream at the movie.

Health experts were also concerned that proper social distancing might not offer enough protection to offset a long period of exposure, especially if some patrons aren’t wearing masks. If you are within six feet of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes or more in a single day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises you to quarantine for 14 days.

When researchers were asked to rate the relative risk of different activities on a scale of 0 to 100, indoor movie watching was considered one of the riskiest:

  • Dining outdoors at a restaurant: 10
  • Shopping in a grocery store: 15-20 (or 30-40 if people congregate)
  • Flying on a commercial airliner: 40-50
  • Attending an outdoor event, especially where mask use and social distancing are not enforced: 40-50
  • Watching a movie indoors: 50-60 (up to 75 if people are laughing, shouting, singing along)
  • Gathering at an indoor bar without a mask and or regard for social distancing: 80

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.

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