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Coronavirus Today: A tale of two Southland school districts

Good evening. I’m Amina Khan, and it’s Thursday, Feb. 11. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

As the school reopening debate comes inexorably to a head, consider this tale of two Southland school districts.

There’s South Whittier School District, where Supt. Gary Gonzales works seven days a week to inch his elementary schools ever closer to reopening. The hurdles he faces are high: getting scarce vaccines to teachers, negotiating with the union, and closely monitoring coronavirus case numbers that show the virus is still ravaging his community, where 118 people have died. Almost all of the district’s students are Latinos from low-income families, and under remote learning, they’re struggling. A date for bringing students back to the classroom is unclear. “It’s all kind of wait and see,” Gonzales said.

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Now consider La Cañada Unified School District, 30 miles away, which has one of the lowest infection rates in the county and few students from low-income families. There, Supt. Wendy Sinnette is working to reopen as many classrooms as possible — ensuring desks are socially distanced, teachers have KN-95 masks and plexiglass dividers are installed. Students in transitional kindergarten through second grade came back to their campuses in November, and third-graders will join them Tuesday. “When I go on campus and see the in-person instruction that’s happening, it really makes you understand why you’re doing all of this,” she said. “Kids need the structure, to be in school.”

These two school districts are emblematic of a larger trend in Los Angeles County: A Times survey of more than 20 school districts throughout the region found that those in wealthier, whiter communities like La Cañada are more likely to be moving full steam ahead to reopen elementary schools. For those serving less affluent Latino and Black communities, prospects for reopening look far more remote.

It’s a pattern being repeated around the nation. Researchers at USC have found that the question of whether to reopen is divided along racial and economic lines. In a national survey conducted last month, 63% of white parents favored some form of return to in-person learning — either full or part-time — as did 68% of those with incomes over $150,000. More than half of Black, Latino and Asian parents, meanwhile, favored remote learning.

This may sound surprising, since there’s growing evidence that students are falling behind during distance learning — particularly those from low-income families and those learning English. But many district leaders in low-income communities that have been slow to reopen said the devastating impact of COVID-19 was a key factor in their decision-making.

Take El Monte City School District, which has been ready to reopen for months now. Its schools have all the necessary personal protective equipment, personalized desk shields in every classroom and hand-washing stations throughout its campuses. But because local coronavirus case rates are higher than average for L.A. County, the district has opted to stay closed, except for 400 students who who have struggled the most with distance learning or whose parents need child care while they work. The district is about 80% Latino, and more than 90% are from low-income families.

“El Monte is going to reopen when it’s right for El Monte to reopen,” said Supt. Maribel Garcia. The local numbers, she said, are key. “We’re constantly taking the pulse of the community and our teachers to see how they feel.”

Ultimately, because the virus is so disproportionately affecting communities of color, focusing on reopening isn’t necessarily the solution for addressing education inequities, said Shaun R. Harper, executive director of the USC Race and Equity Center.

“It’s an important question for sure, but in the meantime can we continue to think creatively and intentionally about how to make remote learning less inequitable for Black, Latino and lower-income communities?” Harper said. “It seems to me in recent months we’ve just given up on that. I think that’s a mistake.”

By the numbers

California cases, deaths and vaccinations as of 5:43 p.m. PST Thursday:

3,440,004 confirmed cases, up 9,412 today; 45,967 deaths, up 471 today; 5,291,493 vaccines administered, up 202,010 today

Track California’s coronavirus spread and vaccination efforts — including the latest numbers and how they break down — with our graphics.

4,108,216 have received at least one dose, or 10.4%. Of those, 990,128, or 2.5%, have received a second dose.

Across California

In a day of confusion and frustration, Los Angeles city-run vaccination sites that were slated to close Friday because of supply shortages ran out of doses sooner than expected and had to turn people away Thursday. The five sites — Dodger Stadium, Crenshaw Christian Center, San Fernando, Lincoln Park and Hansen Dam — will reopen when the city receives more vaccines, Mayor Eric Garcetti said. That probably won’t be until after the Presidents Day holiday.

The city received a scant 16,000 doses this week, compared with 90,000 doses the week before. The reason for the substantial drop was unclear, Garcetti said. He urged federal and state agencies to send vaccines to the city. “We’re vaccinating people faster than new vials are arriving here in Los Angeles, and I’m very concerned right now,” the mayor said.

Current L.A. County health department rules say that teachers are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccines. But that apparently did not stop the Wesley School, a private academy in North Hollywood, from getting them for its teachers through what an announcement described as a “special program,” my colleague Howard Blume reports. Tuition at the school ranges from $28,460 to $32,020 per year, depending on the grade, with a new student fee of $2,000.

School leaders described their efforts in an email to parents, in order to reassure them that they were not putting staff at risk as the school gradually expands its in-person services to students. When alerted to the situation, the county health department issued a statement, saying, “All sites should be vaccinating healthcare workers and people 65-plus and if they have a significant quantity of expiring doses, they should consult with the Department of Public Health, on how best to ensure no wastage.”

In Irvine, the City Council on Tuesday edged toward temporarily raising grocery workers’ salaries by $4 per hour, following moves from progressive California cities that champion what’s become known as “hero pay.” That would raise the wages of at least 1,600 workers in Irvine, according to Derek Smith, political director of United Food & Commercial Workers, Local 324.

The city of Coachella late Wednesday passed a hazard pay mandate for some retail and food workers, including those at grocery stores, restaurants and farms. Santa Monica has moved forward with hazard pay, and the L.A. City Council unanimously embraced a similar proposal last week. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors is expected to take up the issue soon. After Long Beach approved a hero pay measure, Kroger, which owns several supermarket chains, abruptly announced the closure of two stores, affecting 200 workers, and that city is facing a legal challenge from the California Grocers Assn.

The raises have become a hot issue in cities in the Golden State and beyond, with backers saying grocery workers have put their health at risk to serve customers as the coronavirus has spread. There have been a host of outbreaks at supermarkets, with workers getting sick and in some cases spreading the virus to family members. “Grocery workers have been on the front line for a very long time ... and they did not sign up to be heroes. But they’ve done an extraordinary job in a hard time,” Smith said. “I do not understand why the grocery industry doesn’t appreciate its own employees.”

Here’s some vaccine news you can (maybe) use: Starting Friday, COVID-19 vaccines will be available at some CVS pharmacies in California for those currently eligible in their county. The initial allocation to CVS is 250,000 doses, part of a partnership with the federal government. About 81,900 of those doses will be coming to California pharmacies, to be administered in about 100 stores. In Southern California, the locations will include Agoura Hills, Carlsbad, Chula Vista, Huntington Beach, Irvine, Los Angeles, Newport Beach and San Diego.

Appointments are required and can now be made through CVS.com or through the CVS Pharmacy smartphone app. Those without internet access can call (800) 746-7287. CVS asks people to not contact individual pharmacies. If it’s your first dose, you’ll schedule appointments for your first and second doses at the same time. Appointments will probably fill up quickly, but new appointments will be added daily, CVS said.

Walgreens also plans to begin vaccinations in stores on Friday in Riverside, Contra Costa and Placer counties. Appointments can be made through Walgreens’ scheduler. You’ll need to create a Walgreens pharmacy account and complete a short screening. You’ll be able to schedule appointments for both doses at the same time. There are also limited vaccine doses available at other pharmacies, including Vons, Albertsons, Costco and Ralphs.

A description of the four tiers California uses to determine when counties can let businesses open, based on coronavirus risk
tiers map 02-09-21

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

The coronavirus variant first seen in Los Angeles in July has spread across the United States and to six other countries, according to a study published Thursday in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. It’s gone as far as Australia, Denmark, Israel, New Zealand, Singapore and the United Kingdom. Here in the U.S., it’s been found in 18 states plus the District of Columbia. And in its original stomping grounds, it now accounts for about 44% of new infections in Southern California and more than a third of new infections throughout the state, my colleague Melissa Healy reports.

It’s not certain whether the fast-moving variant’s genome has changed in ways that improve its ability to jump from person to person, or to make people infected with it sicker, the researchers said. Either way, they said the virus’ rapid expansion in California is a cause for some concern. The homegrown variant is defined by several mutations in the virus’ spike protein, the “docking mechanism” the virus uses to latch onto human cells — which could potentially make it more transmissible.

“The emergence of this and other new variants is likely to be a common occurrence until the spread of this virus is reduced,” a team from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases wrote in an editorial that accompanies the JAMA study. “This emphasizes the importance of a global approach to surveillance, tracking, and vaccine deployment.”

The United States could see “open season” for COVID-19 vaccine doses by April, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Thursday during an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show. “I would imagine, by the time we get to April, that will be what I would call, for better wording, ‘open season’ — namely, virtually everybody and anybody in any category could start to get vaccinated,” the U.S. government’s top infectious diseases expert said. “From then on, it would likely take several more months just logistically” to administer the shots. In this scenario, the overwhelming majority of U.S. residents could potentially be vaccinated by the end of the summer, he said.

It’s an optimistic forecast, one that comes as states continue to call for more vaccine supplies to ramp up slow rollouts. Right now, inadequate vaccine supply seems to be holding the country’s vaccination efforts back, as evidenced by Thursday’s events in L.A. Dose allocations have varied from week to week, and until recently, officials received little insight into what their shipments would look like even a few weeks into the future. That makes long-term planning a challenge. Fauci, however, said he expects the vaccine distribution to accelerate in the months ahead. Nationwide, nearly 66 million vaccine doses have been delivered, and about 44.8 million have been administered, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Israel, dozens of asylum seekers and foreign workers in Tel Aviv lined up to receive their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine this week as part of an initiative to inoculate the city’s foreign nationals, many of whom are seeking asylum. Recipients included foreign workers from the Philippines, Moldova and Nigeria, as well as Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers. Dozens of doses were provided on the program’s first day.

Garipelly Srinivas Goud, an Indian national who has worked in Israel for eight years, said some foreign workers in Israel don’t have money or insurance to afford the vaccine on their own, and called the vaccine drive a “very good decision.” A Tel Aviv municipality spokesman said it was the government’s responsibility “to vaccinate everybody within the nation’s borders.” Israel has so far delivered more than 3.5 million first doses of the Pfizer vaccine and at least 2.1 million second doses.

The country’s campaign has drawn international praise for its quick pace — but also criticism for not including Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and the blockaded Gaza Strip. The World Health Organization has raised concerns about the inequity, and rights groups say Israel has the obligation as an occupying power to vaccinate Palestinians. Israel denies this and says its priority is its own citizens, but last month it agreed to send 5,000 doses to the Palestinians for healthcare workers.

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from readers who want to know: Should you expect more side effects after your second dose of vaccine than after your first?

If you’ve ever gotten a vaccine, you might have noticed you get a few minor side effects that typically go away within a few days. That’s also true of the COVID-19 vaccines. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those side effects can include fever, chills, tiredness and headache, as well as pain and swelling on the arm where you got the shot.

But some folks have been wondering whether the side effects from the second dose — whether it’s the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine or the one made by Moderna — are more pronounced than those from the first. To answer this, we turned to Dr. Anna P. Durbin, an infectious diseases specialist and vaccine expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“Symptoms generally are stronger after the second dose,” Durbin confirmed. “This is because the first dose has ‘primed’ the immune response and ... with the second dose, your immune system recognizes the vaccine and induces a strong immune response.”

This is actually a good sign, she said. “We believe the side effects indicate that the body’s immune system is responding to the vaccine.”

“However,” she added, “if you don’t have side effects, it certainly does not mean you did not get a good immune response to the vaccine.” That’s because immune system response varies from person to person, so the level of side effects you experience might be different from those felt by others.

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, which are the only two currently available in the U.S., are largely similar when it comes to side effects, she added.

“The only real difference,” she said, “is the ‘COVID arm’ phenomenon with the Moderna vaccine.” She described it as an “area of redness and swelling of the arm” where the shot was administered.

Any vaccine authorized for emergency use in the U.S. should offer protection against severe COVID-19 that far outweighs the risk of a day or two of side effects, experts say. Here’s the advice straight from the CDC: “With most COVID-19 vaccines, you will need 2 shots in order for them to work. Get the second shot even if you have side effects after the first shot, unless a vaccination provider or your doctor tells you not to get a second shot.”

So don’t let any first-shot aches or chills keep you from getting another jab.

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 or two.

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.

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