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Coronavirus Today: California vs. Florida

Good evening. I’m Thuc Nhi Nguyen, and it’s Tuesday, March 9. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

California and Florida, two of the most populous states in the nation, have often employed different strategies for countering the pandemic. California took an aggressive stance, requiring the use of face masks and shutting down much of the economy. Florida was content with a more laissez-faire approach.

About a year into the pandemic, California is emerging as the winner in the states’ head-to-head showdown, but not by as big a margin as you might think, my colleagues Soumya Karlamangla and Rong-Gong Lin II report.

California‘s COVID-19 death rate is 11% lower than Florida’s. Yet Gov. Gavin Newsom is facing a possible recall election over what many view as his draconian handling of the pandemic. Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is garnering praise in some conservative circles.

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Calculating the cost of COVID-19 begins with the human toll — more than half a million lives lost nationally — but also considers other factors, like the state of the economy and the mental health of residents who grew fatigued by strict rules.

“If I had to do it again, I’d still do it the way California did it. But I do think you do have to come away with some humility,” said Dr. Robert Wachter, chair of UC San Francisco’s Department of Medicine. “One might’ve expected that the Floridas of the world would’ve done tremendously worse than the Californias of the world, and they did worse, but modestly worse, and there’s something to be learned there.”

California controlled the coronavirus better than Florida while battling several disadvantages, experts say. About 55% of Californians live in counties with a high “social vulnerability” score — a measure of how severely a disease outbreak might affect a region — compared with only a quarter of Floridians. California’s rate of overcrowding in homes is also more than double Florida’s.

Researchers are still studying how climate affects the coronavirus, but some studies suggest that when air is humid like in Florida, virus droplets fall to the ground faster, so fewer people are likely to become infected as a result of airborne transmission. And one Florida epidemiologist said Florida’s older population might have prevented the virus from spreading as quickly as it did in California; worldwide, younger adults who work tend to spread the virus the most, while older people are more cautious and stay home.

With the deck stacked against California, what worked relatively well in Florida could have had devastating results here. Arizona, which has lax restrictions similar to Florida’s, has the nation’s fifth-highest COVID-19 death rate. California ranks 29th, and Florida is 25th.

DeSantis celebrated that his state maintained a middle-of-the-pack death rate while keeping schools open and drawing in state revenue in the winter that far exceeded projections. “We don’t want people to have to be isolated in their homes being scared,” he said during a recent public address. “You see a lot of these other states that are so intent on closing people down. We’ve lifted people up.”

As for the economic impact, California’s unemployment rate more than doubled to 9.3% since February 2020, while Florida’s rose by less, from 3.3% to 5.1%. Still, millions of middle-class and high-wage workers in California kept their jobs and worked from home, and the state’s tax collections also rose after a strong stock market boosted capital gains earned by the state’s wealthiest taxpayers.

Looking forward, California is anticipating a state budget windfall. Florida is grappling with a state budget shortfall.

By the numbers

California cases, deaths and vaccinations as of 5:51 p.m. PT:

3,585,615 confirmed cases, up 4,143 today; 54,617 deaths, up 241 today; 10,628,752 vaccines administered, up 115,892 today

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

In California, 7,218,393 people have had at least one dose, or 18.3%, and 3,352,223, or 8.5%, have had the second.

Across California

Los Angeles students are a critical step closer to a return to campus beginning in mid-April under a tentative agreement reached Tuesday between the teachers union and the L.A. Unified School District, signaling a new chapter in an unprecedented year of coronavirus-forced school closures.

The agreement, which must be ratified by members, establishes safety parameters for a return to campus and lays out a markedly different schedule that still relies heavily on online learning. The school day would unfold under a so-called hybrid format — meaning that students would conduct their studies on campus during part of the week and continue with their schooling online at other times. Families would retain the option of keeping students in distance learning full time.

There are more signs of progress across the Golden State, with 24 of 58 counties now out of the most-restrictive tier. Many more are set to join them soon if vaccinations in disadvantaged communities continue apace.

According to new state data released Tuesday, Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties are among those in line to graduate from the purple tier to the red tier as soon as California meets its goal of administering 2 million doses of vaccine in the state’s most underserved communities. That achievement would make counties with no more than 10 new cases per day per 100,000 people eligible to make that move. Previously, counties had to be at or below seven new cases per day per 100,000 residents. (For more on this, be sure to catch the reader question at the end of this newsletter.)

The latest adjusted case rates in L.A. (5.2), Orange (6.0), San Bernardino (6.7) and San Diego (8.8) counties would all qualify for the red tier once the vaccination goals are met. They would join the 20 counties that are already in the red tier. Three more are in the orange tier, and Alpine County is in the yellow tier, the least-restrictive level.

When the state reshuffled its vaccination strategy last week, the intent was to reach communities like South L.A., which got a boost to its vaccine access Tuesday with a new city-run vaccination site at USC. To help things along, the city partnered with Uber to offer 15,000 free rides and 20,000 others at half price to bring the community’s residents to the site.

The vaccination center will start with “a few thousand” appointments in the first week of operations, according to a statement from the city, and will ramp up to 5,000 doses a day when it’s fully equipped. It will be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily at the seven-story Flower Street parking garage at Exposition Boulevard and Figueroa Street. Patients will be able to drive or walk up to the facility.

The site will try to reserve appointments for South L.A. seniors who have been greatly affected by the pandemic. Unfortunately, similar well-intentioned efforts have gone awry all over Southern California. The latest example came Tuesday in Pasadena, where officials canceled a vaccination clinic after more than half of the appointments were taken by people who were not eligible, my colleague Laura J. Nelson reports.

There were 1,500 slots at the clinic designed for people older than 65 and essential workers who live or work in Pasadena. Then 900 of the appointments were snapped up by people who didn’t meet state guidelines to get vaccinated but likely caught wind of the opportunity after a link intended for certain essential workers spread to outsiders. Many of them worked in the news media and in Hollywood, including at production companies, streaming TV services, news outlets and on the sets of soap operas.

People receiving vaccinations in Pasadena are required to show proof that they meet state eligibility requirements and work or live in the city. The Pasadena Public Health Department tries to contact every person whose registration form lists an address outside of the city to verify their eligibility, but calling 900 people in time for this week’s clinics was too difficult.

Officials plan to reschedule the clinic, but have not yet set a date. Canceling the clinic was particularly harsh for senior citizens who had legitimate claims to an appointment and were struggling to find slots. Some cried when they learned their appointments had been moved, city spokeswoman Lisa Derderian said.

Instead of taking appointments from eligible people, those waiting their turn can earn a spot in line by volunteering at a vaccine clinic.

California launched a volunteer page last week for people to sign up. To be eligible for the vaccine, you’ll need to work at least a four-hour shift. The state is looking for medical volunteers, who will be required to verify their medical license to register as a vaccinator, vaccine prep supporter or patient observer, and nonmedical volunteers, who assist with registration, administration support or as a site greeter.

A volunteer who completes a shift and gets approval from the clinic administrator can become eligible for the vaccine, but it’s unclear whether the dose will be administered immediately after the person volunteers. Access to a same-day shot is contingent on supply levels at county-run or city-run sites.

A map of California showing many counties in the purple tier, 20 in the red tier, three in orange and one in yellow.
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

It’s officially called a COVID-19 relief package, but some Republicans call the 592-page bill moving through Congress this week a “liberal wish list.” With the deal’s final approval likely, Democrats will take the victory by any name.

Big-ticket items like $1,400 stimulus checks and $300 weekly federal unemployment benefits headlined the $1.9-trillion pandemic package. Those pieces gained so much interest that they overshadowed topics that would amount to major pieces of legislation on their own, my colleague David Lauter reports.

For instance, Democrats succeeded in expanding the Affordable Care Act after years of Republican-led repeal efforts and broke a decades-long logjam in Congress over the fate of pension plans that cover more than 1 million union workers, retirees and their surviving spouses. The bill also secures $24 billion for the child-care industry and features items focused on homelessness, school meals, public transit and Native American tribes.

Republicans have been nearly unanimous in criticizing the bill’s size and sprawling nature. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) called it “massively excessive.” Democrats don’t have a problem with trying to deliver on goals that predate the pandemic, especially when they say the crisis has made the long-standing problems even more pressing.

People appear to be siding with the Democrats on the issue. A poll released Tuesday by Pew Research Center found that 70% of Americans are in favor of the package, with 28% opposed. Despite the unanimous opposition of GOP members of Congress, 41% of Republican respondents favored the bill and 57% opposed it, Pew found. Support in the GOP was strongest among Republicans who called themselves moderates and among those with lower incomes.

Elsewhere in Washington, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History got a key addition to its growing collection of pandemic artifacts Tuesday. The museum announced the acquisition of materials connected to the first COVID-19 vaccine administered in the United States, including the vial that contained the first dose, special shipping equipment and the medical scrubs and ID badge of the New York City nurse who received the historic shot.

The museum has been closed since November and officials said they weren’t sure if the coronavirus materials would be on display when it reopens this year.

In Mexico, government officials are betting on an influx of Chinese vaccines to help boost the country’s vaccine rollout despite questions about efficacy of the shots.

The Mexican government announced new agreements for 32 million doses of two Chinese vaccines this week, signing up for 12 million doses of the Sinopharm shot and increasing its allotment of the vaccine developed by Sinovac Biotech to 20 million doses. Combined with 4 million doses of a third Chinese shot from CanSino, Mexico will have 36 million doses of Chinese vaccines — dwarfing the 5 million doses the country has received so far from other sources.

Mexico is supposed to get about 34 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, but deliveries have been slow so far. The uneven supply has set up a situation in which some Mexicans, mainly in urban areas, will receive the Pfizer vaccine, which has around 95% efficacy, while most will get one of the Chinese vaccines.

Sinopharm has said its vaccine is 79% effective based on interim data from clinical trials, but like other Chinese firms, it has not publicly released its late-stage clinical trial data. Experts in Hong Kong have assessed the efficacy of the Sinovac vaccine at about 51%. The CanSino vaccine has been approved in Mexico and reportedly has an efficacy rate of around 66%.

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from readers who want to know: How close is L.A. County to moving into the red tier?

If that question sounds familiar, it’s because we answered it last week. But the rules for exiting the purple tier and moving into the less restrictive red tier have been modified since then. As a result, Los Angeles and other Southern California counties could be making the move any day now.

Since August, the key criteria the state has used to determine a county’s tier assignment have been its adjusted case rate, the coronavirus test positivity rate and the health equity metric (which applies to the 35 counties with at least 106,000 residents).

But California’s new focus on getting vaccines delivered to underserved communities opens up another path out of the purple tier. Once 2 million doses have been administered to people in the state’s most disadvantaged areas, the threshold for moving from the purple into the red tier will be relaxed. Instead of needing no more than seven new cases per day per 100,000 residents, counties will be able to have up to 10 new cases per day per 100,000 residents.

As it happens, the state released its new weekly tier assignments Tuesday, and the adjusted case rate for L.A. County is now 5.2 new cases per day per 100,000 residents. Under the old system, if that number stayed below seven for another week, L.A. would move into the red tier the following day, on March 17.

But if the number to meet becomes 10 and not seven, then the county could move into the red tier within a matter of hours, since we’ve already been under that threshold for two weeks.

So how close are we to getting 2 million doses to people in the targeted communities — that is, those in the lowest quartile of the California Healthy Places index?

As of Monday, almost 1.9 million doses had been administered there, according to state data. That’s up from 1.6 million doses in the middle of last week. At this rate, we’re likely to cross the 2-million mark any time.

Keep in mind, once L.A. County enters the red tier, it doesn’t necessarily mean residents will get to do everything the state allows, such as letting restaurants serve customers indoors at up to 25% capacity or allowing gyms, dance and yoga studios to operate indoors at 10% capacity. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors could decide to keep stricter rules in place if they think it would be better for the public’s health. Members of the board are expected to make decisions this week, and at least some of them would like the county’s rules to be as permissive as possible.

Entering the red tier would also clear the way for secondary schools to resume in-person instruction once their COVID-19 safety protocols have been assessed and approved by government officials.

We want to hear from you. Email us your coronavirus questions, and we’ll do our best to answer them. Wondering if your question’s already been answered? Check out our archive here.

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.

We’ve answered hundreds of readers’ questions. Explore them in our archive here.

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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