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Coronavirus Today: The post-Christmas surge is here

Happy New Year! I’m Amina Khan, and it’s Monday, Jan. 4. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

Los Angeles County is now one of the hottest spots in America’s coronavirus crisis. Since it may be hard to comprehend how extreme the county’s crisis is, consider this: Here, a person is dying every 10 minutes. Here, a person is infected every six seconds.

For Angelenos, this is the darkest phase in the pandemic. And it means the people who suffer the most are being hit harder than ever. Those who are able to stay home (and actually do so) face relatively low risk. But for those who live in crowded conditions due to the high cost of housing and who must go out in order to work, the outbreak has become a far more dangerous threat. That’s particularly apparent in the growing number of outbreaks at both retail stores and other businesses deemed essential.

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Seven Costco warehouses have had clusters of at least 15 confirmed cases among their employees, including 71 staffers in Culver City, 50 in Van Nuys and 42 in Woodland Hills. Eight Home Depots in L.A. County are dealing with active outbreaks, while 10 reported outbreaks at Target locations have infected 217 workers.

There have also been infections among staff at six McDonald’s locations, four Chick-Fil-A restaurants and two In-N-Outs; at Best Buy stores in Downey and Hollywood; at the Nordstrom in Cerritos; at Trader Joe’s in Glendale and North Hollywood and Whole Foods markets in Santa Monica and Sherman Oaks; and at Apple stores at the Beverly Center, Glendale Galleria and Los Cerritos Center.

The virus has also caused nine ongoing outbreaks at Los Angeles Fire Department stations that have infected at least 65 people. And there are three ongoing outbreaks among people who work at Los Angeles International Airport, including at American Airlines and JetBlue Airways.

The entertainment industry, deemed essential under the state’s stay-at-home rules, has also been hit hard. Three Warner Bros. productions in Burbank — “Lucifer,” “The Kominsky Method” and “Young Sheldon” — have had clusters of infections that affected a total of 35 people. Forty-five coronavirus cases have been identified at CBS Studio Center in Studio City. And 23 cases have been identified among workers at NBCUniversal in Studio City and Universal City, including some working on the show “Mr. Mayor.” Nine coronavirus cases have been reported among staff at Netflix Productions’ office in Gardena.

L.A. County public health officials have urged filmmakers to pause work for a few weeks during this “catastrophic surge in COVID cases,” and a number of studios have delayed production on several TV shows.

Sometimes, outbreaks represent poor infection control practices at businesses. But sometimes they’re simply a reflection of just how widely the virus is circulating in the county, more easily spreading from social gatherings to workplaces and then to homes, in an infectious and vicious cycle.

Social gatherings have been a major contributor, including holiday family events and big New Year’s Eve celebrations. L.A. Police Department and Sheriff’s Department officials broke up at least 13 New Year’s Eve gatherings involving more than 2,900 people, and arrested at least 90 adults on suspicion of violating the stay-at-home order.

Communities of color have suffered a disproportionate toll during the pandemic — and the new surge has made those inequities worse.

“The progress we’ve made over the summer has completely evaporated,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said. “The gaps again have dramatically widened, particularly for Latinx residents compared to other groups, although all groups are experiencing increases in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.”

And case and death rates in poorer neighborhoods are rising far more quickly than they are for people in wealthier areas. This, again, comes back to the fact that the high cost of housing forces people to live in crowded homes, raising their risk of infection if anyone in the household becomes ill.

As the case rates climb, even people who are in relatively good health are becoming more vulnerable. Earlier in the pandemic, just 7% of people dying of COVID-19 had no underlying medical conditions. Now that rate has doubled to 14%.

“We’re the densest metro area in the United States. But we’re also seeing the household spread now,” L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti told the CBS News program “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “One person is coming home — an essential worker — there might be five, seven, 10 people in that household. And this is a worrying trend that the fatalities now are not just people with preexisting conditions.”

By the numbers

California cases, deaths and vaccinations as of 6:11 p.m. PST Monday:

2,449,499 confirmed cases, up 70,519 today; 26,993 deaths, up 356 today; and 454,306 Californians vaccinated, 1.5% of adults.

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

Across California

Here’s more proof that the post-Christmas spike in coronavirus cases has arrived: More than 19,000 new cases were counted in L.A. County on New Year’s Day, and 16,603 more joined them on Saturday, according to a Times tally. Those are the third-highest and fifth-highest counts for a single day.

And here’s another ominous statistic: The total number of cases since the start of the pandemic has now surpassed 800,000, and more than 400,000 of those infections were reported since Dec. 1. In other words, there were as many new cases in the past five weeks as there were in the previous 11 months.

“This is the fastest acceleration of new cases than at any other time during the pandemic,” the L.A. County Department of Public Health said.

That’s a major threat to hospitals that were already stretched to breaking by the post-Thanksgiving surge — and to the patients who need them. As of Sunday, there were 7,898 coronavirus-positive patients hospitalized in the county, with 1,627 of them in intensive care. The situation is so dire that the L.A. County Emergency Medical Services Agency has told ambulance crews to try to cut back on their use of oxygen — and not to bring in patients who have virtually no chance of survival. Instead, officials say they need to focus on patients with a greater chance of making it.

These are just some of the desperate measures being taken in these desperate times, which will only get worse as patients infected over the Christmas holiday come in for treatment.

Hospitals are looking quickly to discharge ill patients who would otherwise be kept in beds for continued observation. Emergency rooms are already so overwhelmed that patients are being forced to wait inside ambulances for as long as eight hours for a bed to open. That means the ambulances can’t respond to other emergency calls — leading to worries that patients who suffer heart attacks, strokes or other emergencies won’t get medical attention quickly enough.

Officials hope to overcome this problem by creating temporary “ambulance-receiving spaces” just outside emergency room entrances. In these spaces, often covered by tents or canopies, a paramedic or EMT may assist with monitoring up to four patients in some areas (as opposed to a more typical one-to-one ratio). This allows more ambulances to leave the hospital and return to circulation.

Meanwhile, the new and possibly more contagious coronavirus strain causing concern in Europe and recently detected in the U.S. has now been found in Big Bear, officials say. The variant was identified in two members of the same household who were tested for the virus on Dec. 20, according to the San Bernardino Department of Public Health. One of them had contact with a traveler who returned from Britain on Dec. 11 and developed COVID-19 symptoms three days later. Four other cases of the new variant were identified this week in San Diego County, bringing the total number of such cases in California up to six.

Experts say there’s no evidence that the variant is deadlier, causes more severe illness or makes existing vaccines ineffective. But its particular set of genetic changes may make the virus easier to transmit. This has sparked fears that the variant could cause new cases to surge even faster as hospitals reach their limits and a slow-moving vaccine rollout struggles to get underway.

How slow is the rollout? Of the nearly 1.3 million doses of coronavirus vaccine that have arrived in the state so far, only about 35% have been administered, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday. That means 65% of available doses are still waiting to go into Californians’ arms. That’s “not good enough,” Newsom said as he pledged new funding and other efforts aimed at ramping up administration of the vaccine.

The deadly conditions did not stop a group of anti-mask protesters from storming through a grocery store and the Westfield Century City mall on Sunday to protest COVID-19 health mandates, harassing employees and customers alike. Social media videos show the unmasked group walking through a Ralphs grocery store; one man called a customer a “mask Nazi,” and a woman tried to ram her shopping cart into a masked man and was later seen kicking him in a checkout line. “Come on, patriots, show him what’s up,” she could be heard saying on video.

Los Angeles police officers were present to “keep the peace” during the demonstration, an LAPD representative said. No arrests were made, but two battery reports were taken. The event comes almost a week after a group of maskless demonstrators forced its way into an Erewhon market in the Fairfax district.

A map showing most of California under stay-at-home order, most northern counties in Tier 1 and Humboldt County in Tier 2.
A description of the tiers California uses to determine when counties can let businesses open.

See the latest on California’s coronavirus closures and reopenings, and the metrics that inform them, with our tracker.

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Around the nation and the world

More than 350,000 people in the U.S. have died of COVID-19. That terrible milestone did not stop President Trump from claiming on Sunday that the country’s death count was “far exaggerated”— a baseless assertion that was quickly shot down by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-diseases expert.

“The deaths are real deaths,” Fauci said in an ABC interview. “That’s not fake.”

The surge of post-holiday infections in California and elsewhere means that the first month of 2021 could be even worse than December, which so far was the pandemic’s deadliest month. “There’s no running away from the numbers,” Fauci said.

Trump also suggested on Twitter that states, not the federal government, bore the responsibility for a less-than-impressive vaccine rollout. Garcetti countered by saying that states and municipalities had been denied crucial resources that would let them move faster.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered a new national coronavirus lockdown for England until at least mid-February in order to combat the new coronavirus variant. The nation is at “a critical moment,” Johnson said, with cases shooting up in every part of the country. The new rules shut down face-to-face learning in primary and secondary schools as well as in colleges, except for the children of key workers. University students won’t return to the classroom at least until mid-February. Nonessential shops and personal care services will all be closed, and restaurants will be limited to takeout service.

As of Monday, 26,626 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized in England — a jump of more than 30% from a week prior, and 40% above the highest level seen during the first pandemic wave in the spring. A new surge continues as public health officials struggle to control the new variant; more than 50,000 infections per day have been logged in the United Kingdom every day since Dec. 29. And on Monday, a daily death count of 407 pushed the nation’s confirmed death toll to 75,431 — one of the worst in Europe.

Without further action, the U.K.’s chief medical officers warned, “there is a material risk of the National Health Service in several areas being overwhelmed over the next 21 days.”

The news comes even as Britain became the first country to administer vaccine shots made by Oxford University and British drugmaker AstraZeneca. The country has been using a vaccine made by Pfizer and German firm BioNTech; the AstraZeneca offering is cheaper and easier to use because it doesn’t require the super-cold storage needed for the Pfizer vaccine.

Britain is planning to give people second doses of both vaccines within 12 weeks of the first shot, rather than the recommended 21 days, in order to deliver initial inoculations to as many people as quickly as possible. It’s “the right thing to do for the nation as a whole,” said the government’s deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam.

India has also OKd the AstraZeneca vaccine, as well as another offering by domestic drugmaker Bharat Biotech. (Both vaccines require two doses.) But health experts have raised questions over the Indian vaccine, pointing out that clinical trials have only recently begun, making it impossible for the firm to have analyzed and submitted data to show that its shots are effective.

The country’s initial goal is to vaccinate 300 million people by August, including healthcare workers, front-line workers such as police, and people who are vulnerable to COVID-19 due to age or disease. But the plan faces major challenges, as India’s large immunization program isn’t geared toward adults, and vaccine coverage remains patchy.

India has had 10.3 million coronavirus infections, second in the world only to the U.S., though its infection rate has fallen significantly from a peak in mid-September. It has also logged more than 149,000 deaths.

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from readers who want to know: How does L.A. County’s new mandatory quarantine order work? Does it apply to me?

Los Angeles County is the latest county in California to impose a mandatory quarantine on long-distance travelers; Santa Clara and San Francisco counties have issued similar orders already. These moves — together with the state’s Nov. 13 advisory urging Californians to stay home (or at least in their region) and avoid nonessential travel — are part of an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

My colleagues Rong-Gong Lin II and Luke Money have put together a helpful explainer on who it affects, what’s required and who is exempt.

Who is affected? Anyone traveling to L.A. County for leisure or recreation from anywhere outside the Southern California region. That includes people who come to L.A. for a nonessential reason, including to visit family members.

It also includes L.A. County residents who have left the region and are returning home.

The Southern California region includes Imperial, Inyo, Los Angeles, Mono, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

What do they need to do? If you fall under the order, you need to quarantine for 10 days — that is, stay at home or find other lodging and avoid contact with others. Don’t go out to grocery stores or restaurants; have food delivered instead.

Who is exempt? The list of exempted people includes licensed healthcare professionals, those working for essential government or infrastructure reasons, those traveling through L.A. County but not staying overnight, those who are members of professional or collegiate sports teams, and personnel of a film or media production operating with the county, among others.

How long will the mandatory quarantine order remain in effect? Indefinitely. The county did not give a target date for when it would be modified or rescinded.

Also, some helpful guidance from L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer: A negative test on Day 3, 5 or 7 won’t keep you from testing positive on Day 8, 9 or 10. That’s why the policy requires staying home for the full 10 days.

“If you have tested positive and you need help isolating or notifying your close contacts, please call us at 1 (833) 540-0473 and a public health specialist will help connect you to resources,” she said.

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

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.

For our most up-to-date coverage, visit our homepage and our Health section, get our breaking news alerts, and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.


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