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Coronavirus Today: Cracking down on line jumpers

Good evening. I’m Amina Khan, and it’s Wednesday, Jan. 6. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

A retired lawyer. A fashion industry worker. A real estate investor. These are just some of the folks in Los Angeles County who’ve been able to jump the line as COVID-19 vaccines roll out across the region.

At one South L.A. vaccination site, one of my colleagues watched as about 100 people were admitted for immunizations without being asked to show proof that they worked in healthcare. One woman said she received the vaccine at Hansen Dam Recreation Area in Pacoima even after telling workers that she was not a healthcare worker.

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For now, only healthcare workers are supposed to be getting the shots at these sites. But word had spread quickly by text and email that no one was verifying healthcare credentials at some county vaccination locations. On Monday, dozens of people were showing up in hopes of getting an early dose. Officials appeared to have caught on by Tuesday, requiring a photo ID and documentation of a healthcare industry job in order to get a shot.

“There’s a gross amount of fraud,” a Los Angeles Fire Department employee told a woman in scrubs, who had proof she was a healthcare worker, as she checked in for her appointment at the Crenshaw Christian Center. “We have people throwing street temper tantrums because they’re not getting their way, and it’s worked for them in the past.”

At a Lincoln Heights clinic Tuesday, one elderly man who would not give his name refused to leave after a worker turned him away. He repeatedly told her he had a lung condition and a signed note from his doctor that qualified him for an early vaccine. Growing increasingly distressed, he yelled, “You have to help me!”

“I would love to vaccinate you today, but I can’t,” she told him. “I wish I could help.”

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He eventually left, disappointed.

Many of those turned away were seniors. Some had underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk of being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19, said Richard Dang, the USC pharmacist overseeing immunizations at a site in Lincoln Heights. Though seniors and people with health conditions are expected to get priority access to the vaccines, it’s not clear when it will be available to them. For some, the wait could last months.

“It’s been a major issue,” Dang said. “It’s been tough.”

Though the vaccines were developed with unprecedented speed, programs to distribute them have not proceeded with the same level of efficacy. The potholes cropping up in the Southland are emblematic of vaccine snafus emerging all across the country.

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In Houston, where senior citizens and people 16 and older with chronic conditions are eligible for the vaccines, an appointment hotline crashed after 250,000 people called in. In Florida’s Lee County, shots were offered on a first-come, first-served basis, and seniors reportedly lined up with lawn chairs and waited for hours to see if they’d make the cut.

More than 17 million doses of vaccine have been shipped to hospitals and pharmacies across the country, but fewer than 5 million had been used as of Tuesday morning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recall that federal officials said in December that they planned to vaccinate 20 million Americans before the new year.

“There does seem to have been a pretty substantial breakdown in the planning process,” said David Johnson, a Chicago-based healthcare consultant. “The feds were just focused on, ‘OK, we’re just going to get the vaccines to your doorstep.’”

Johnson said the situation reminded him of the Obamacare rollout, when a bungled website crashed just two hours after launching, threatening to undermine the whole system. The debacle undermined confidence in the Affordable Care Act and gave critics an opening.

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The same thing could happen with the COVID-19 vaccine, he said.

“If we’re not effective on the rollout, the encouragement to take the vaccine doesn’t carry as much weight,” he said.

By the numbers

California cases, deaths and vaccinations as of 6:15 p.m. PST Wednesday:

At least 2,533,462 cases, up 36,448 today, at least 28,063 deaths, up 544 today, and 459,564 vaccinations.
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Track the latest numbers and how they break down in California with our graphics.

Across California

Coronavirus infections in California hit 2.5 million Wednesday — and more than 1 million of those cases have been logged in less than a month. According to The Times’ tracker, 1 in 16 people in the state have now tested positive for the virus at some point during the pandemic.

As the outbreak continues unabated, thousands of L.A. healthcare workers have been sickened by it, worsening the crisis already plaguing hospitals stretched to the breaking point. More than 2,200 people who work in L.A. County hospitals tested positive for the virus in December alone. That’s roughly a third of all hospital staff infections reported during the pandemic.

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Hospitals across California have struggled to maintain adequate staffing, with workers out because they’re either sick with COVID-19 or quarantining because of exposure. That means there are fewer doctors, nurses and other health workers available at a time when the public needs medical care the most.

“We end up short-staffed in everything, from nurses to doctors to even the custodial staff that helps us turn over the rooms,” said Dr. Anish Mahajan, chief medical officer of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center near Torrance. “And all of that makes it even more difficult to take an onslaught of more and more patients.”

It’s already feeling like a losing fight in hospitals across the county, as the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients surpassed 8,000 and the countywide death toll rose by almost 1,300 in the last week.

“It is getting harder and harder for healthcare workers to care for those coming to the hospital with gunshot wounds, heart attacks, strokes and injuries from car accidents,” said L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis. “Hospitals are declaring internal disasters and having to open church gyms to serve as hospital units.”

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Methodist Hospital of Southern California in Arcadia has already been forced to convene a triage team that will “make the difficult but necessary decisions about allocating limited resources” to critically ill patients “based on the best medical information available,” officials said. In Fresno County, officials are scrambling to find oxygen-making machines in order to care for the rising tide of COVID-19 patients. The plan is to send home COVID-19 patients who would normally stay in the hospital.

“It’s a very grave scenario to make that decision,” said Dr. Rais Vohra, Fresno County’s interim health officer. “Because under normal conditions, under ideal conditions, everyone who needs oxygen would be admitted to the hospital. Unfortunately, we’re operating in a disaster and so we don’t have that luxury, and we have to make really hard choices and do the best that we can.”

On Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed to extend protections for California renters from pandemic-related evictions and to expedite the distribution of $2.6 billion in federal rental assistance for low-income tenants. Newsom said the budget he will release Friday includes the rental assistance money as well as a $600 state stimulus check for low-income residents.

Millions of Californians lost income back in March when the state issued stay-at-home orders and restrictions on businesses in an effort to curb the virus’ spread. In the summer, Newsom and the state Legislature approved a bill that protects tenants from evictions through Jan. 31 if they are suffering pandemic-related financial hardships and are paying at least 25% of their monthly rent.

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Under the new proposals, “Californians who have been impacted by this pandemic will get help to provide for their families and keep a roof over their heads,” Newsom said.

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

Many Black Americans have expressed mistrust of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign — a skepticism rooted in historical realities of institutional and medical mistreatment. So in a bid to show them the shots are safe, three VIPs — Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, former U.N. Ambassador and civil rights leader Andrew Young and former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan — rolled up their sleeves and got their shots in Georgia.

Getting vaccinated “makes me feel wonderful,” Aaron said. “I don’t have any qualms about it at all, you know. I feel quite proud of myself for doing something like this. … It’s just a small thing that can help zillions of people in this country.”

Here’s some more news that might help assuage the anxieties of vaccine skeptics: A report released Wednesday by the CDC found that severe allergic reactions to the COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech were “rare” in the first 10 days of its rollout across the country.

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A total of 21 cases of anaphylaxis have been confirmed among nearly 1.9 million doses administered during the 10-day period, CDC researchers wrote. That works out to 11.1 cases per 1 million doses. None of the reactions was fatal.

Across the Atlantic, the European Union’s medicine regulator gave the OK to Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine Wednesday, adding a second option to the EU’s arsenal against the disease.

The approval comes as many members of the 27-nation bloc face criticism over the slow pace of vaccination across a region home to about 450 million people. The campaigns have varied widely, with France vaccinating roughly 500 people in its first week while Germany vaccinated 200,000.

EU regulators had already approved the COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech; both require two shots given a few weeks apart. Moderna’s is easier to handle because it does not need to be stored at ultra-freezing temperatures.

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Moderna said Monday that it is raising its estimate for global vaccine production this year from 500 million to 600 million doses. It could potentially ramp up operations enough to make 1 billion doses, the company added.

Mexico’s COVID-19 point man is coming under fire for taking a maskless beachside vacation after urging citizens to stay home. Hugo López-Gatell, the country’s undersecretary of health, has been telling viewers of a nightly televised news conference that oxygen tanks are scarce, hospitals are near the breaking point and healthcare workers have died in numbers higher than anywhere else around the globe. And of course, he asks those watching to stay home.

So it became a sore point for many when photographs surfaced of López-Gatell relaxing on a sandy Pacific beach roughly 500 miles from his Mexico City home. One photo shows him seated at an outdoor bar with a female companion, both maskless. Another photo shows him on a crowded flight from Mexico City, talking on a cellphone, again without a mask.

The revelations place him in the company of other public authorities lambasted for what some call pandemic hypocrisy. Among them: Our own Gov. Gavin Newsom, who was scorned after attending a November birthday dinner at the French Laundry in Napa Valley.

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Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from readers who want to know: How safe are the COVID-19 vaccines in the real world?

Given how quickly the first vaccines were designed, tested and authorized, it’s understandable that some folks are worried about side effects that may not have been apparent during clinical trials. But as the vaccines have gone into the arms of front-line healthcare workers and nursing home residents around the U.S., researchers have been watching carefully for signs of problems. And so far, it looks like the risk of a severe allergic reaction is very, very low.

As I mentioned earlier, researchers from the CDC put out a new report that looks at what happened during the first 10 days of administering the first vaccine to receive emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. Out of 1,893,360 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine given between Dec. 14 and Dec. 23, there were 175 possible cases of severe allergic reactions. Digging deeper, investigators found that only 21 were cases of anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction that can be fatal if not treated promptly. Luckily, none of these was.

Seventeen of the 21 patients were treated in emergency rooms, and four patients were admitted to a hospital. Three of those hospitalized patients required intensive care. Nineteen of the 21 were women. That’s interesting, given that women were more likely to have an “immediate hypersensitivity” to the H1N1 influenza vaccine during the 2009 flu pandemic.

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Seventeen of those 21 patients had a history of allergies, including seven who’d had anaphylactic reactions before. The CDC recommends that people be asked about their previous allergic reactions before they receive the shot. Vaccine recipients are also asked to hang around for 15 to 30 minutes so that if an anaphylactic reaction occurs, medical professionals are on hand to treat it with epinephrine. You can find the guidance here.

Eighty-six of the 175 cases involved other allergic reactions, and more than 4 out of 5 of them were considered “nonserious.” Symptoms included rashy or itchy skin, an itchy or scratchy throat, and mild respiratory problems.

An additional 61 cases turned out not to be allergic reactions at all, and seven are still under review, the CDC team wrote in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

As for the Moderna vaccine, fewer than 225,000 doses were given out during the 10-day period of this study. A separate report on its side effects is in the works, the researchers said.

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