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Coronavirus Today: How to vaccinate homeless Angelenos

Good evening. I’m Thuc Nhi Nguyen, and it’s Wednesday, Feb. 17. Thank you to those who wrote emails and welcomed me to the newsletter after my debut yesterday. I appreciate your kind words as we continue this journey together. As a note for those wondering, my first name is actually Thuc Nhi, pronounced “Too-k Knee.”

With the extended introduction done, here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

Attempting to sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine has been, to put it plainly, a nightmare for many Angelenos. Phone lines are jammed, websites are crashing, and the number of appointments is extremely limited.

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All of this is even more daunting for homeless Angelenos.

Consider Lance Curtis, a 65-year-old who lives in a single-room-occupancy building on skid row. When he saw Dodger Stadium turn into a vaccination site, he wondered how he would be able to get in line. He doesn’t have a car.

Luckily for Curtis, doctors and nurses came to him.

Los Angeles Christian Health Centers and officials from the Los Angeles Department of Health Services are calling people in homeless shelters and setting up clinics near encampments to ensure this hard-to-reach — and especially vulnerable — group is protected.

But the effort to vaccinate the homeless population and skid row community is fraught with obstacles, my colleague Benjamin Oreskes writes. A transient population is, by its nature, a moving target. Physically delivering the vaccine is difficult: It has to be stored at freezing temperatures, can’t be shaken, can’t be in direct sunlight and must be used within hours of being defrosted. And on top of all this, many of the people health workers are trying to reach are suspicious of authority and, as a result, the need for vaccination.

Officials at Los Angeles Christian Health Centers receive about 100 doses per week to distribute across six clinics in L.A. County. The Department of Health Services adds about 400 to 500 doses per week for the homeless population. It’s not even close to enough to protect the roughly 66,000 people in L.A. County who are homeless.

But for healthcare workers who treat homeless patients, it’s a welcome start.

Nurses and doctors try to focus on shelters and encampments that have suffered outbreaks, including one in Leimert Park. Officials knocked on RV doors and bent down to the pavement to speak to those who had been sleeping on the sidewalk. They assured people of the vaccine’s safety, observed patients for 15 minutes after receiving their shots in case they suffered allergic reactions, and offered food, clothes and juice.

Personal touches like these may be the key when it comes to vaccinating skeptical communities. Curtis, after speaking to nurses, personally convinced his friend and neighbor Cornelius Kincy to get the shot as well. They went together.

“They told us we’re not going to die,” Kincy said. “We’re not going to throw up. We’re not going to get the runs.”

After their 15 minutes of observation and with the approval of nurses, Kincy and Curtis then went to the store for a celebratory beer.

By the numbers

California cases, deaths and vaccinations as of 5:15 p.m.:

3,483,174 cases, up 4,457 today; 47,812 deaths, up 303 today; 6,435,184 vaccines administered, up 172,403 today.
(Los Angeles Times)

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

6,435,184 vaccines administered, up 172,403 today.
(Los Angeles Times)

Across California

After a dire winter surge, the worst of California’s coronavirus crisis seems to be behind us as cases have dropped to pre-Thanksgiving levels across the state.

Over the last week, California has reported an average of 8,087 new coronavirus cases per day. We haven’t seen a number that low since mid-November.

The improving picture has made Gov. Gavin Newsom optimistic about the possibility of reopening more of the economy. Currently, 52 of California’s 58 counties are in the most restrictive, purple tier, but Newsom said Tuesday he anticipates a “substantial number” of counties could move into the less restrictive red tier next week.

This week, Plumas became the latest county to advance to the red tier, joining Del Norte and Mariposa. Trinity, Sierra and Alpine are a step further, in the orange tier. No counties are in the most lenient, yellow category.

During the worst weeks of the winter surge, the state was reporting nearly 45,000 new cases a day, and the positivity rate for coronavirus tests was about 15%. It’s fallen to 3.5% as of Tuesday.

The progress comes with a caveat: We didn’t come this far just to come this far. There’s still work to be done as we wait for more vaccines. Newsom spoke at Cal State L.A. on Tuesday to inaugurate a new vaccination site there, and Orange County opened one at Santa Ana College on Wednesday to distribute vaccines to people 65 and older, healthcare workers and some law enforcement officers.

“We do appreciate all the efforts everyone made to get us back to slowing the spread, and it’s our firmest hope that this continues,” said Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer. “We all have learned that this in large part depends on the actions of businesses and individuals as we wait for there to be enough vaccine doses for everyone in our communities.”

With case rates dropping, L.A. County allowed elementary schools to start reopening this week, but that doesn’t mean all schools will be starting in-person classes immediately. The process will be uneven as circumstances vary between school districts.

My colleagues illustrated the discrepancies by introducing us to two families from nearby communities living in very different realities.

Stuart Waldman has two second-graders and one fourth-grader in Manhattan Beach and wants their schools to reopen fully soon. The district, which has a poverty rate of 5%, had already allowed students through second grade to come back to their campuses under a county-approved waiver.

On the other hand, Rogelio Rivas has two children in an Inglewood elementary school. Inglewood Unified has a poverty rate of 83%, and 71% of families surveyed there said they don’t feel comfortable “sending their child back to school,” even if it’s allowed. Rivas joined the chorus.

“The bottom line is Inglewood is mostly brown and Black kids whose parents are essential workers,” he said. “If you send your kids into a school and they bring the virus back to your family where there’s multiple generations living, it’s scary.”

Essential workers are among the first in line to receive vaccines to tame the pandemic, but the process to determine who is “essential” enough to receive a coveted shot has left millions of front-line workers in California without protection.

About 5.7 million people work on the front lines, doing things like packing food, pruning fields, cleaning offices and sewing cloth masks.

My colleagues Suhauna Hussain and Andrea Castillo spoke to Santiago Puac, who works in a clothing factory in downtown L.A. There are often 100 people from three different garment manufacturers packed into the same space. Even when Puac suffered body aches and lost his sense of smell, he continued to work because he couldn’t afford to stay home.

At 42, Puac isn’t old enough to qualify for the vaccine yet. His job isn’t included in the current vaccination Phase 1B that covers essential workers in education, emergency services and food and agriculture. He believes some of his co-workers also went to work while sick because, like him, they needed to keep up with their finances.

Low-income Californians can expect some help in that regard, in the form of a one-time $600 stimulus check. Residents who have annual incomes of less than $30,000 and qualify for the 2020 California earned income tax credit are eligible for the stimulus checks, Newsom announced Wednesday. So are immigrants who are in the country illegally but who file tax forms.

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

Part of the “new normal” has been finding novel ways to carry on old traditions. We had drive-through graduation ceremonies and Zoom Thanksgiving dinners. They’re decent substitutes for the time being, but nothing like the real thing.

Another iconic American celebration got a COVID-19 revamp as New Orleans hosted a quiet and cold Mardi Gras.

Bourbon Street was deserted amid coronavirus restrictions that closed bars and crowded streets. Instead of riding floats, some locals decorated their homes and tossed beads from their porches. Record-low temperatures added to the list of reasons to stay inside, where some would-be revelers settled for burning candles to honor the dead instead of leading processions.

Mardi Gras is often seen as a colorful, rowdy parade of people “having fun, doing their thing, parading, getting drunk or whatnot,” said 70-year-old Victor Harris. But it also has significant cultural meaning to local groups.

The city’s Mardi Gras Indians, a tightknit group of Black working-class families, dress in flamboyant suits in honor of Native Americans who helped protect runaway slaves. They see the holiday as a time to connect with ancestors.

“Going back all the way from slavery, it’s a spiritual thing for us,” said Harris, the big chief of the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi and Mandingo Warriors. “This is the day to come together.”

With a subdued Mardi Gras in the books, President Biden remained cautiously optimistic that we could return to our old traditions soon with vaccination rates increasing.

The United States’ daily vaccination rate has almost doubled under Biden, going from about 900,000 per day during former President Trump’s final full week in office to 1.7 million shots per day last week, according to data released by the Biden administration.

“By next Christmas I think we’ll be in a very different circumstance, God willing, than we are today,” Biden said during a CNN town hall Tuesday.

Supply problems continue to stifle the vaccination process, but Biden said he expected shots to be available for every American by the end of July.

Europe is also improving its vaccination effort. The European Union finalized an agreement with Pfizer and BioNTech to get 200 million more doses of their COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the year. That’s on top of an initial order of 300 million. About 75 million doses will be delivered between April and June.

Last month, Pfizer announced it was temporarily reducing deliveries to Europe and Canada while it upgraded production at its plant in Belgium. But BioNTech is starting production at a new plant in Germany this month.

While companies work to produce more doses to keep pace with the demand, scientists are monitoring the possibility of modifying their vaccine recipes so they’re better equipped to deal with emerging coronavirus variants.

We’ve already seen more contagious strains, but scientists are wrestling with how to know when a variant has changed enough to warrant a booster shot or an entirely new vaccine. Some of the original COVID-19 vaccines are already proving to be less effective against the coronavirus strain from South Africa.

“When do you pull the trigger?” asked Norman Baylor, a former Food and Drug Administration vaccine chief.

Researchers are looking to the flu vaccine as a blueprint. Influenza mutates faster than the coronavirus, and modifying the vaccine every year is an international effort. National centers collect information about flu viruses on their turf and track their mutations before sending samples to World Health Organization-designated labs for more sophisticated testing. The WHO and regulators agree on each year’s vaccine recipe before manufactures get to work.

Establishing a similar network of surveillance and testing for the coronavirus will be crucial to keep it at bay in the future.

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from readers who want to know: Should we be bracing for another surge in the spring?

This is an idea that’s been making the rounds recently. Dr. Peter Hotez, an expert in vaccine development at Baylor College of Medicine and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine there, is among those who say we should brace for a spike in cases in March and April.

“Beware of the Ides of March,” Hotez warned during this recent interview with the American Medical Assn.

But Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-disease expert, has a different view.

“I do not believe that we should accept the inevitability of there being another surge,” he said on “L.A. Times Today.” “We can prevent that by very carefully adhering to the public health measures that we speak about all the time.”

Those measures include universal masking, practicing physical distancing and resisting the urge to gather with people outside one’s household, especially indoors.

These steps, combined with the stepped-up rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, should be enough to avert a spring surge, Fauci said: “It could happen, but it’s within our power to prevent it.”

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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