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Coronavirus Today: A global response to a global crisis

Good evening. I’m Thuc Nhi Nguyen, and it’s Tuesday, Feb. 16. I’m a sportswriter at The Times, and I’ve taken the baton from my colleague Amina Khan. Enlisting a sports reporter may seem like an odd choice for a newsletter about an infectious disease, but if the past year has taught us anything, it’s that COVID-19 affects all corners of society. I look forward to keeping you up to date as we hopefully head into a new phase of the pandemic where things start to return to normal.

With that in mind, here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

It’s been easy to feel isolated during the pandemic. No birthday parties, graduation celebrations or holiday dinners. My world, which mostly includes my apartment and the grocery store down the street, feels a bit smaller.

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But seeing the ease with which different coronavirus variants have already spread across the globe serves as a concrete reminder of just how connected the world is in this fight.

As my colleague Chris Megerian writes, uncontrolled spread anywhere in the world can give the virus a chance to evolve in a way that would render current vaccines ineffective. The happenings in distant countries could send us all back to square one in the United States.

A repeat of March 2020? No thanks.

This presents the Biden administration with something of a quandary when it comes to vaccines: How can the United States keep its own people safe while also aiding the worldwide effort to prevent any unchecked transmission?

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Biden has reversed former President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization, and he’s joined COVAX, an international partnership intended to ensure equitable access to vaccines. But when it comes to distributing shots, Biden remains focused on the supply issues that have stymied immunization efforts in his own country.

One expert said the United States should consider providing vaccines overseas after high-risk Americans and healthcare workers are taken care of. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus went further, writing in a magazine article that “vaccine nationalism is not just morally indefensible. It is epidemiologically self-defeating and clinically counterproductive.”

To help increase vaccines worldwide, WHO granted emergency authorization to AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine Monday, allowing the agency to ship millions of doses to countries that signed up for the COVAX effort. The vaccine is just the second one approved by WHO, which OKed the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in December.

AstraZeneca‘s vaccine has been authorized in more than 50 countries, and it’s cheaper and easier to handle than the Pfizer shot, which requires deep cold storage. But there are still concerns: An early study suggested the AstraZeneca vaccine might not prevent mild and moderate disease caused by the coronavirus strain that’s dominant in South Africa.

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Once countries receive a COVID-19 vaccine, it can be a struggle to get people to take it. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who was infected with the coronavirus last year, said he doesn’t plan on getting vaccinated even though his country ranks second in worldwide COVID-19 deaths, trailing only the U.S. And 17% of his countrymen who responded to a poll said they didn’t intend to get vaccinated. That percentage is higher in the poorer, remote areas.

That’s not just a problem for Brazil. It can be a problem for us, too.

“Since this is a global pandemic, it will require a global response,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s leading expert on infectious diseases. “So we have to pay attention to what’s going on in the rest of the world. Otherwise, we will be constantly threatened by variants and different lineages of the virus that will have evolved outside of the United States.”

By the numbers

California cases, deaths and vaccinations as of 5:32 p.m.:

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3,477,196 confirmed cases, up 9,727 today; 47,440 deaths, up 324 today; 6,262,781 vaccines administered, up 109,672 today.

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

In California, 4,708,607 people have gotten at least one dose, or 11.9%; 1,456,222, or 3.7%, have had the second.

Across California

With coronavirus cases dropping in L.A. County, elementary schools are getting the green light to open the doors to all students for the first time in almost a year. But don’t ditch the Zoom classroom just yet.

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Schools hoping to reopen must submit safety plans that outline ways to adhere to protocols involving masks, social distancing and proper ventilation. “This is a steep hill to climb,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Tuesday.

Some school districts in the county — especially those in more affluent areas — are likely to reopen before others. Officials and teachers from L.A. Unified are still in negotiations about what a return to the classroom would look like for the nation’s second-largest school system.

The option to reopen is now on the table because the county was able to get its seven-day average of daily new coronavirus cases below 25 per 100,000 people — and then keep it there for five consecutive days. (In fact, on Monday, that metric was down to 20 new cases per 100,000 people.) However, middle schools and high schools can’t reopen until the rate drops to seven per 100,000 people.

And here’s another factor that could accelerate the opening of elementary schools: Ferrer said Tuesday that teachers in L.A. County will become eligible for COVID-19 vaccination starting March 1.

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Educators will join child-care workers, food and agriculture workers, grocery store employees, law enforcement personnel and other emergency responders when the county’s vaccination program expands to include certain essential workers. But they’ll probably face competition for their shots because supplies are expected to remain limited. Ferrer said the county had the capacity to vaccinate 600,000 people, but only about 200,000 doses were available Tuesday.

The federal government has stepped in to provide assistance with vaccination super-sites opening at Cal State Los Angeles and the Oakland Coliseum. They will be jointly run by the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the site in East L.A. was picked to address an underserved population, as Latino residents continue to suffer disproportionately from the pandemic. During the last two weeks of January, the average daily COVID-19 death rate for Latinos in L.A. County was 33 per 100,000 residents — triple the figure for white and Asian American residents, who were dying at a rate of 11 per 100,000 residents. Black residents had a mortality rate of 14 per 100,000 residents.

In an effort to further ensure equitable vaccine distribution when the supplies are available, the state partnered with Blue Shield of California to develop an algorithm to determine how to best allocate vaccines. The goal is to administer 3 million shots a week by March 1 through the centralized vaccine program, but details are sparse. The partnership does not appear to solve the supply chain problems.

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Kaiser Permanente is expected to sign a similar contract with the state for a vaccination program with its members.

Map of California showing most counties assigned to the most restrictive Tier 1, with three in Tier 2 and three in Tier 3.
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.

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Around the nation and the world

We’ve brought you plenty of grim milestones over the past months, but here’s a marker that shows that things are getting better: On Sunday, the seven-day rolling average of new coronavirus infections in the United States dipped below 100,000 for the first time since Nov. 4, according to data kept by Johns Hopkins University. To put that figure in perspective, consider that the average peaked at about 250,000 in January.

Still, experts cautioned that infections remain high and Americans should not let up on their efforts to reduce the virus’ spread. “The cases are more than two-and-a-half-fold times what we saw over the summer,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

According to the World Health Organization, there were 340,801 new cases reported in a 24-hour period that ended Tuesday morning. The U.S. accounted for 87,896 of those new cases, or nearly 26% of the global total, despite being home to only about 4.3% of the world’s population.

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Speaking of American success stories, Fauci won a $1-million prize from an Israel-based private foundation for advocating for COVID-19 vaccines and “speaking truth to power in a highly charged political environment.”

The Dan David Foundation bestows three prizes annually for contributions addressing the past, present and future. Fauci received the award for the “present” category Monday for his work in public health. The foundation credited the 80-year-old head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for “courageously defending science in the face of uninformed opposition during the challenging COVID crisis.”

“As the COVID-19 pandemic unraveled, [Fauci] leveraged his considerable communication skills to address people gripped by fear and anxiety and worked relentlessly to inform individuals in the United States and elsewhere about the public health measures essential for containing the pandemic’s spread,” the foundation’s awards committee said.

In China, residents of Wuhan rang in the Year of the Ox over the weekend amid few outward signs of the global pandemic that began in their midst. Red lanterns lined crowded streets as families snacked and shopped for gifts. But masks can’t cover the scars left from the pandemic.

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“It’s like we’ve all taken an anesthetic,” Mary Xu told my colleague Alice Su. “People don’t want to face it. They are numb and avoidant.”

Xu, a therapist, has counseled people gripped by guilt, grief and shame. There was the woman who lost her mother and husband within days, the panicked wife who threw away every household item her quarantined husband had touched, and the woman who spent days begging for an ambulance for her father, who wound up dying on the first floor of their home.

Many others don’t want to talk about the pandemic. Changing the topic is easier than digging into the trauma or contemplating the government irresponsibility that led to it. As many of us in the United States anticipate our post-pandemic lives, Wuhan could serve as a reminder that recovering from the toll won’t be easy.

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from readers who want to know: Is it safe for children to go back to school if they haven’t been vaccinated?

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Public health experts are confident that the answer to this question is yes.

It makes sense that parents would wonder about this, especially with teachers in L.A. Unified — the second-largest school district in the country — insisting that they get access to COVID-19 vaccines before returning to their classrooms. But in an interview with L.A. Times Today on Tuesday, Fauci pointed out that vaccines aren’t the only tool we have to protect ourselves from the coronavirus.

“There are so many different ways that you can mitigate against the children getting infected,” he said.

Just last week, the CDC offered detailed advice on how to reopen schools without sparking new outbreaks. The advice focuses on five key strategies that are designed to work together to enhance safety for everyone on campus:

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• Universal mask wearing while at school

• Maintaining at least six feet of physical distance

• Frequent hand washing

• Making sure surfaces are clean and indoor spaces like classrooms are properly ventilated

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• Following protocols for isolating people who are infected, quarantining those who have been exposed, and using contact tracing to track down everyone who may be at risk.

“That goes a long way to protecting the children, as well as protecting the teachers and the other educational personnel,” Fauci said.

“Obviously we’re going to have to vaccinate children ultimately, but you don’t want to wait until the children get vaccinated to send them back to school,” he added.

L.A. Times subscribers can watch the full interview with Fauci on latimes.com/video.

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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.

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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