Advertisement
Share

Coronavirus Today: Are we ready to lift restrictions?

Good evening. I’m Amina Khan, and it’s Monday, Jan. 25. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

For the record:

8:26 a.m. Jan. 26, 2021An earlier version of this newsletter said the “widespread” risk tier was red. It is purple.

We’re starting off the week with some big news in California: Gov. Gavin Newsom has canceled the state’s regional COVID-19 stay-at-home order. All counties will return to the familiar colored tier system that assigns local risk levels based on case numbers and rates of positive coronavirus test results. Most will now fall under the purple “widespread” risk tier, which allows hair salons to offer limited services indoors and restaurants to serve diners outdoors.

The changes will immediately ease restrictions in Southern California, the Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley, which had still been under stay-at-home orders, unless local officials put stronger restrictions in place. (Throughout the pandemic, local leaders have been allowed to go beyond the state’s rules and implement their own stay-at-home orders or shut down additional activities deemed too risky for their areas.)

Advertisement

“California is slowly starting to emerge from the most dangerous surge of this pandemic yet, which is the light at the end of the tunnel we’ve been hoping for,” said California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly. “Seven weeks ago, our hospitals and front-line medical workers were stretched to their limits, but Californians heard the urgent message to stay home when possible, and our surge after the December holidays did not overwhelm the healthcare system to the degree we had feared.”

Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis said Monday that outdoor dining and other permitted activities would be allowed to resume in the state’s most populous county. Despite having become a national hotbed of coronavirus cases, personal care services and outdoor dining could be back in business by the end of the week. (Here are details on what can reopen and how.) But we still have to be careful.

“Please don’t take this news to mean that you can return to life as normal,” Solis said. “Masks, physical distancing and limiting activities are still key to getting out of this pandemic until we can get everyone vaccinated. “

It’s also unclear what the city of L.A. will do. Mayor Eric Garcetti could opt to keep outdoor dining and other services in Los Angeles shut down, as the city is allowed to enact tougher restrictions than the county. A spokesman for him didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the county’s plans.

In spite of the unprecedented levels of sickness and death, the outdoor dining ban — which Garcetti supported — has been highly controversial, with some elected officials and the restaurant industry fighting to overturn it.

Officials in other Southern California counties have been even more critical of the state-imposed rules, which the governor announced on Dec. 3 in an effort to reduce the strain on hospitals as case numbers surged.

Newsom’s latest decision may sound like good news for businesses that have been hanging on by a thread through the pandemic. But here’s the problem: State data show that hospital systems in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley are still running dangerously close to their limits. (The order’s threshold for lifting regional shutdowns had been based on whether intensive care units in a region had at least 15% of their beds still available.)

“Maybe the rules can be loosened as things are improving, but they’re barely improving!” my colleague Soumya Karlamangla pointed out on Twitter. “There are still way too many people in the hospital, and health care workers are still stretched so thin.”

And despite some positive developments, there are worries about new and potentially more contagious variants of the coronavirus that are circulating in California and beyond. At least one of the new variants is thought to be 50% more transmissible than the conventional variety, and if it became more widespread, it would lead to more infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

Karlamangla added on Twitter that we’re not out of the woods yet: Lifting these rules when cases are still high would give the curve an opportunity to bend upwards once more. “California has been consistently bad at re-opening, and this seems like it’s going to be the next example,” she wrote.

By the numbers

California cases, deaths and vaccinations as of 6:50 p.m. PST Monday:

3,191,023 confirmed cases, up 28,505 today; 37,502 deaths, up 384 today; 2,191,111 vaccines given, up 191,475 yesterday.

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

Across California

As California ramps up its vaccination efforts, there’s growing concern that the drive may have an unwanted side effect: reducing much-needed coronavirus testing.

Take Dodger Stadium, which Newsom and other officials introduced as a vaccination site on Jan. 15. The goal, he said, was to eventually inoculate 12,000 people there every day. But that venue had been the largest coronavirus testing site in the U.S., administering more than a million tests in its nearly eight months running — including more than 10,000 per day during the recent surge.

When the city ended coronavirus testing at Dodger Stadium and closed another major testing site to help staff the new vaccination center, it removed (at least for now) about a third of all government-run testing in L.A. County. That diminished capacity means longer waits for test appointments, which in turn means people could potentially expose others for a longer time before learning they are infected.

Many health experts agree that prioritizing vaccination over testing is the right move. But with COVID-19 caseloads still high in spite of their decline from peak levels, and new strains of the virus lurking in California, public health officials say that testing remains a crucial tool in the effort to contain — and ultimately suppress — the pandemic.

“It’s hard to balance those two against each other, because we really just need a lot of both,” said Dr. Clemens Hong, who heads the county’s testing operations.

Teachers and other school staff will need to be vaccinated in order for L.A. Unified campuses to reopen for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, Supt. Austin Beutner said. But the teachers union said that while inoculations are necessary, they’re not enough to ensure that schools can operate safely. In the union’s view, that can only happen once the rate of coronavirus transmission in the community is much lower than it is now.

“We don’t believe that all employees being vaccinated is a sufficient trigger for the full reopening of schools, because neither vaccine currently on the market is proven to provide sterilizing immunity,” the union said in a bargaining update. That means that children and their family members could still be at risk. “A safe path to reopening must include low community transmission and infection rates.”

The union’s position puts it at odds with dissatisfied parents who are eager for campuses to reopen more quickly, my colleague Howard Blume writes. It also raises questions about whether LAUSD schools will be able to reopen this academic year.

Meanwhile, teacher vaccinations are expected to kick off this week in Long Beach, which has its own health department that operates independently of L.A. County’s. Several other smaller California school districts have also begun to vaccinate teachers — a reflection of the patchwork approach to immunizations across the state and nation at large.

After a months-long economic recovery, California’s unemployment rate surged in December as the pandemic spiraled out of control and the state’s regional stay-at-home order shuttered more businesses. As many as 9% of Californians said they were out of work last month, up from 8.1% in November. That marked the first monthly rise since April’s unprecedented 16.4% jobless rate, my colleague Margot Roosevelt writes.

Much of that economic hit came from the closure of hotels and restaurants — the leisure and hospitality sector lost 117,000 payroll jobs, offsetting gains in construction and professional and business services. “December’s job loss capped a year of trauma,” said Lynn Reaser, an economist at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. “Summer should usher in a stronger economy, but it will be critical to first subdue the virus. Only then can we spring back to life.”

California tiers map 01-25

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

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

Consider subscribing to the Los Angeles Times

Your support helps us deliver the news that matters most. Become a subscriber.

Around the nation and the world

President Biden has reinstated COVID-19 travel restrictions on most non-U.S. travelers from Brazil, Ireland, the United Kingdom and 26 other European countries that allow travel across open borders. He also added South Africa to the list, due to concerns about a strain that emerged there and has spread beyond that country’s borders, said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. “This isn’t the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel,” Psaki said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert and Biden’s chief medical advisor on COVID-19, called the decision “prudent.” “We have concern about the mutation that’s in South Africa,” Fauci told “CBS This Morning.” “We’re looking at it very actively. It is clearly different and more ominous than the one in the U.K., and I think it’s very prudent to restrict travel of noncitizens.”

The White House’s move reverses an order issued by Donald Trump in his final days in office that would have relaxed travel restrictions as of Tuesday. Trump’s move had been paired with a new requirement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that all international travelers obtain a negative coronavirus test within three days of boarding a flight to the U.S. Last week, Biden expanded on the CDC requirement and directed federal agencies to require international travelers to quarantine upon arrival and obtain another negative test to slow the virus’s spread. Those requirements also go into effect Tuesday.

Arizona has now surpassed California as the state with the worst coronavirus infection rate, my colleague Jaweed Kaleem reports. As hospitals fill up, the state of 7.2 million now has just 150 intensive care unit beds available statewide at any time. Rural areas such as farm-rich Yuma are having to fly patients to Phoenix.

The Grand Canyon State has gone in a very different direction from California’s mask-up-and-shut-down approach. Arizona has refused to implement a statewide mask measure, allowed restaurants and bars to operate indoors and reversed a decision to cancel high school sports.

For a virus whose spread depends on people breathing near each other, Arizona “has created the perfect climate,” said Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Assn. “It’s a recipe for disaster. It was California that was the hot spot. But we did nothing to stop the surge. Now, it’s us.”

Some good news on the vaccine front: Moderna says its COVID-19 shots do protect against troubling variants of the coronavirus that have emerged in Britain and South Africa. However, while tests showed the vaccine was effective against both strains, there was a sixfold drop in levels of “neutralizing antibodies” against the one from South Africa.

Moderna said those levels still offered protection, but out of “an abundance of caution,” it has started developing a booster vaccine to target that strain, called the B.1.351 variant. The company will also test whether simply giving an extra dose of the original vaccine might help.

Pfizer, which makes a similar vaccine, has previously reported that its vaccine also appears effective against the variant from Britain, but other research has raised questions about the one from South Africa.

In the Netherlands, politicians and local leaders condemned rioters who clashed with police on Monday night, the third of a coronavirus curfew that runs from 9 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. Police in the port city of Rotterdam used a water cannon and tear gas in an attempt to disperse a crowd of rioters who also looted shops.

“It is unacceptable,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said earlier in the day of Sunday’s unrest. “This has nothing to do with protesting. This is criminal violence, and that’s how we’ll treat it.”

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from readers who want to know: I’m eligible for a vaccine. Will I be able to get my shot soon?

My colleagues Luke Money and Hannah Fry warn that it’s going to be tough going this week — vaccine supplies are going to be limited as more people who have already received their first dose show up for their second shot. This means there will probably be significantly fewer doses for those looking for their first one.

In terms of its vaccination progress, California is at the bottom of the pack compared with other states, my colleagues say. The Times’ tracker shows that the state has provided nearly 2.2 million doses of vaccine, including 552,000 in Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties and 223,000 in the Inland Empire and San Diego County.

Dr. Paul Simon, chief science officer for L.A. County’s Department of Public Health, said Friday that “a majority of the supply [this] week will go for second doses. ... There will be some first doses offered, but we want to be very careful because we can’t predict, unfortunately, the supply chain, even several weeks forward.”

Simon acknowledged the tension “between wanting to get as many people vaccinated with that first dose [and] with trying to make sure that everybody who’s vaccinated gets the full sequence of two doses.”

So it may be difficult to snag a slot this week. But that’s not to say you shouldn’t try! Here’s what you need to know to sign up for Los Angeles and some nearby counties:

Los Angeles County: Residents 65 and older can sign up for an appointment at the county Public Health Department’s website. Folks without computer access can call (833) 540-0473 between 8 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. for assistance with reservations. The city of L.A. is also offering the vaccine to those 65 or older through a different online portal. That website connects patients to mass-vaccination sites.

Orange County: OC opened a large-scale COVID-19 vaccination site Saturday at Soka University in Aliso Viejo, joining its first vaccination center at Disneyland in Anaheim. Eventually, the county plans to operate five centers. For now, only healthcare workers, residents of long-term-care facilities and people 65 and older are eligible to be vaccinated at the centers, and they must make appointments via the Othena website or app. For help with it, try the vaccine help line at (714) 834-2000.

Ventura County: The county is offering vaccinations to residents 75 and older. They can sign up for appointments online or by calling (805) 477-7151.

Inland Empire: Information for Riverside County residents can be found at the Riverside University Health System, while San Bernardino County residents can consult the county’s website. Both counties are offering vaccines with various restrictions at multiple locations.

You can also always find quick links to information on vaccinations around Southern California in the Resources box at the bottom of every newsletter.

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

Resources

Need a vaccine? Keep in mind that supplies are limited, and getting one can be a challenge. Sign up for email updates, check your eligibility and, if you’re eligible, make an appointment where you live: City of Los Angeles | Los Angeles County | Kern County | Orange County | Riverside County | San Bernardino County | San Diego County | San Luis Obispo County | Santa Barbara County | Ventura County

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.


Advertisement