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Coronavirus Today: The toll on Latino neighborhoods

Good evening. I’m Amina Khan, and it’s Tuesday, Dec. 1. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

When a person is exposed to the coronavirus — or worse, gets sick as a result — they’re told to isolate themselves from others for a period of 14 days. In some ways, being able to do so is a privilege, one that’s not afforded to many people in the San Fernando Valley’s Latino neighborhoods, where infection rates run far higher than in the county at large.

Take Carolina Sanchez. She lived in one room with her four children at a Vagabond Inn in Sylmar. Sanchez contracted the coronavirus after being exposed while working at a 99 Cents Only store. There was no way to live apart from her family, and all four children as well as her sister, who cared for the kids, became infected.

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“This was the cost of being a low-wage worker living in crowded conditions,” my colleague Ruben Vives writes. “It was a cost exacted from Latinos above almost any other group.”

In the midst of a major COVID-19 surge that has California caseloads reaching new heights, low-income, working-class, majority-Latino neighborhoods have been hit especially hard, Times data show.

In L.A. County, a major COVID-19 epicenter, five of the 25 communities with the highest infection rates lie in the northeast San Fernando Valley. These areas include ZIP codes with high rates of crowded housing, and they are home to workers who are considered essential and whose work puts them at high risk of encountering the virus, Vives writes.

It doesn’t help that the air quality is subpar in a number of these neighborhoods, which are ringed by three freeways, a railroad line and dozens of industrial facilities — not to mention a power plant that has been leaking methane for three years.

The city of San Fernando earns a dubious top spot on this list, with an infection rate of 1,044 cases per 100,000 people. That’s more than twice L.A. County’s overall rate of 496 infections per 100,000 people. Pacoima is roughly double the county’s rate, with 993 infections per 100,000 people. The Valley neighborhoods of Arleta, Sylmar and Van Nuys are also on the hot-spot list.

This pattern is repeated across other heavily Latino areas beyond the San Fernando Valley, including many along the 10 Freeway corridor in San Bernardino County, in border communities in San Diego and Imperial counties, and in agricultural areas in the Central and Coachella valleys.

Keep in mind, 55% of California’s Latino residents work in essential front-line jobs where there’s a higher risk of coronavirus exposure, according to the UC Berkeley Labor Center. That’s the highest such employment rate in the state; Black residents come in second, at 48%, compared with just 35% of white residents.

And so far, Latino residents are suffering disproportionately from the pandemic. As of Nov. 7, Latino residents were being hospitalized at more than double the rate of white residents.

By the numbers

California cases and deaths as of 5:29 p.m. PDT Tuesday:

More than 16,000 new cases, for a total of 1,246,276, and 105 new deaths, for a total of 19,319.

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

Across California

Los Angeles County saw an alarming one-day rise in cases Tuesday. The roughly 7,000 new cases smashed the single-day record of 6,186 cases logged just last Monday, Times data show. And that new record isn’t even a full accounting of the day’s cases, since it didn’t yet include those from Long Beach and Pasadena.

The burst of infections comes soon after local officials put into place some of the strongest coronavirus-related regulations that the county has seen in months. And even more alarming, the cases reported Tuesday don’t represent infections that occurred during Thanksgiving.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday said Southern California could run out of intensive care unit capacity by mid-to-late December if the current trend does not change. Demand for ICU beds would be at 107% of capacity across the region by Christmas Eve.

California also beat its own recently set record, logging 21,848 new confirmed infections Monday, surpassing the previous high of 20,654 set just a week ago, Times data show. And by Monday night, the state was averaging about 14,000 new cases per day over the past seven days. That’s a level not seen at any point in this entire pandemic.

Close to a quarter of the state’s more than 1.2 million cases were diagnosed in November alone — a staggering number when you consider that the first known infected patient arrived on U.S. soil in January.

The coronavirus has also become more widespread, as indicated by testing data: The 14-day positivity rate hit 6.2% over the weekend, well over the 4.7% positivity rate from two weeks before. Given state health officials’ estimate that 12% of those who test positive are hospitalized two to three weeks later, these high case counts are likely to push more people into hospitals, straining an already stressed healthcare system.

Public health experts are calling this a particularly dangerous moment for the sickest and most vulnerable populations. “It’s astoundingly bad ... They’re seriously, seriously bad numbers,” said Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist and infectious diseases control expert at UC San Francisco. “We don’t have anyplace to decompress patients because stuff that’s just as bad is going on in Oregon and Nevada and Arizona. ... If there were ever a time for prevention and heeding advice, this is it.”

L.A. County has imposed stronger restrictions, including suspending outdoor restaurant dining, banning gatherings and closing playgrounds. Newsom raised the possibility of a stay-at-home order for counties in the strictest tier of California’s coronavirus reopening road map. In both cases, the hope is to slow the spread before it gets any worse, officials said.

On the education front, a new lawsuit argues that California has failed to provide a free and equal education to all students during the pandemic. The suit, filed Monday on behalf of students, parents and several community organizers, alleges that this failure violated the state Constitution by discriminating against Black, Latino and low-income families.

Distance learning has left these students without access to necessary digital tools or to academic and social-emotional supports, the suit alleges. It also says students have been harmed by schools that have not met the minimum instructional times and haven’t provided sufficient support to teachers.

Take plaintiff Angela J., a parent of three elementary-age children in the Oakland Unified School District. Her twins, in second grade last year, only received live instruction with a teacher twice from the time schools closed in mid-March to the end of the school year, she said, and the students were not assigned materials to make up for the lost time. “There’s no schedule, no structure — it’s loosey-goosey,” she said. “I don’t think it’s effective.”

The lawsuit demands appropriate access to computing devices and other technology, effective remote instruction that’s largely equivalent to in-person teaching and that meets minimum instruction times, academic and mental health support for students, and a plan for returning to in-person instruction.

Last but not least, the suit calls for additional education to make up for the learning losses that low-income, Black and Latino students have suffered. “There will need to be a huge effort to get those kids back on track and make sure that not only do we go back to ‘normal,’ but that the damage that’s been done by this period is undone,” said attorney Jesselyn Friley.

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

A map showing which tiers California counties have been assigned in the state's reopening plan based on coronavirus spread.
A map showing which tiers California counties have been assigned in the state’s reopening plan based on coronavirus spread.

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

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Around the nation and the world

The first COVID-19 vaccines won’t be ready for a couple of weeks, but a government advisory panel of experts offered some guidance Tuesday on who should be first in line to receive the coveted shots.

Priority should go to the 21 million medical workers who care for or come into contact with patients in hospitals, nursing homes, clinics and doctor’s offices, according to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. That group includes home healthcare workers and paramedics and possibly janitorial staff, food service employees and medical records clerks too.

Next in line should be the roughly 3 million people living in nursing homes, chronic care hospitals and other U.S. long-term care facilities. Those patients and the staff members who care for them have accounted for 6% of the nation’s coronavirus cases and 39% of the COVID-19 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The panel makes recommendations to the CDC director, who almost always approves them. However, its recommendations are not binding on states, which will make their own decisions about how to distribute vaccines.

While schools in many parts of the country remain shut down to prevent virus transmission, Florida will require schools to stay open despite the rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Gov. Ron DeSantis, who argues that lockdowns have not worked, also said the state was not considering any more restrictions on businesses that could lead to layoffs or financial losses. He pointed to countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, which kept children in school.

Florida schools will continue to offer online classes for students whose families choose not to return for in-person classes, but students who fall behind in virtual mode will be required to go back to campus, DeSantis said. Florida’s cases are on the rise again, with more than 990,000 confirmed cases and more than 18,700 deaths.

Mexico is in “bad shape” with the pandemic, the World Health Organization’s leader said this week, urging the country’s leaders to take stronger measures against the virus and set an example for neighboring countries. The country’s COVID-19 death toll has risen past 105,940, the fourth-highest in the world, with more than 1,113,000 confirmed coronavirus cases. The true numbers are likely to be much higher due to low levels of testing.

“We would like to ask Mexico to be very serious,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “We have said it in general: Wearing a mask is important, hygiene is important and physical distancing is important, and we expect leaders to be examples.”

The pandemic has dampened Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, practically shuttering the biblical town known as Jesus’ birthplace during what in other years is a very festive holiday season. Thousands of international pilgrims are absent, and restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops are closed.

Bethlehem is dead,” said Maryana al-Arja, owner of the 120-room Angel Hotel on the city’s outskirts. The hotel was the site of the West Bank’s first coronavirus outbreak after a group of Greek tourists were infected in March. Al-Arja said she has been forced to close the hotel and lay off the entire staff, as there is no sign the pandemic is ending anytime soon. She herself was infected with the virus as well.

Bethlehem drew roughly 3 million tourists last year. But after Israel banned tourists due to the crisis, and with the West Bank’s border crossing with Jordan closed to foreigners, the number of visitors is now near zero, said Elyas al-Arja, the head of the city’s hotel association and a cousin of Maryana al-Arja. “Sixty percent of the city relies on tourism, and their income disappeared when the tourists disappeared,” he said.

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from a reader who wants to know: How long does the virus stay in the air outside?

This reader says she and her friends want to figure out if it’s safe to go to their mailbox or even hang out in their yards without wearing a heavy-duty mask.

For this question, I spoke to Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, a pulmonary and critical care physician at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

First off, you have to consider whether the people around you outside are behaving in ways that could facilitate virus transmission. Coughing, sneezing, singing and yelling will create a turbulent trajectory of droplets that could carry viral particles, he said, and those can travel very far.

That said, the largest droplets with the largest potential viral loads will likely fall out of the air fastest, thanks to gravity, he said. The biggest offenders are likely out of the air in minutes.

(Incidentally, scientists suspect that outdoor transmission falls in warmer, more humid climates because moisture in the air gloms onto these droplets, making them bigger and causing them to fall sooner.)

The smallest droplets with far fewer viral particles may remain airborne for a little while longer. But they aren’t a huge transmission concern because the body can withstand one or two viral particles. It’s the big doses that can cause trouble, Galiatsatos said.

“You need to breathe in a good deal of this viral load to become infected,” he said. “So time with a person is going to be important.”

So no, if you’re running out to your mailbox or walking around in your own yard with members of your own household, you don’t need to wear a mask.

That said, if your mailman is delivering some letters when you go out to your mailbox, it may be courteous to put on your mask, even if there’s little risk of transmission, he added.

“For the purposes of consistency and just good social norms, I think if someone wants to put it on then that’s reasonable too,” he said.

We want to hear from you. Email us your coronavirus questions, and we’ll do our best to answer them.

More resources

Practice social distancing using these tips, and wear a mask. Here’s how to do it right.

Watch for symptoms such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, chills, shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and loss of taste or smell. Here’s what to look for and when.

Need to get tested? Here’s where you can in L.A. County and around California.

Americans are hurting in many ways. We have advice for helping kids cope, resources for people experiencing domestic abuse and a newsletter to help you make ends meet.

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