Coronavirus Today: It’s spring, and we have good news
Good evening. I’m Deborah Netburn, back at the helm, and it’s Tuesday, March 23. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.
For the record:
1:20 p.m. March 24, 2021A previous version of this newsletter included an outdated California reopening map that reflected counties’ tier assignments from March 9, 2021. It has been updated with the correct map to reflect the latest tier status.
Spring is in the air. The pink jasmine is blooming. Lupines and poppies are starting to show up, and today I want to celebrate some good news: In California right now, the situation with this pandemic is better than it’s been in a long, long time.
Let’s start with the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center’s Have We Flattened the Curve in California page — one of my favorite resources and something I’ve checked almost daily throughout the pandemic.
This page filled me with dread over the winter. Now it fills me with joy. As you can see in the graph, California has fully recovered from our devastating winter surge.
According to this graph, the seven-day average of new cases in the state on Sunday was 2,633. The last time the number was that low was back in May, months before the summer surge began.
Also, consider this update from the California Department of Public Health that brought me even more joy: The state has a seven-day positivity rate of 1.7%.
In Los Angeles County — which has been responsible for about a third of the state’s coronavirus cases and nearly 40% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths — the test positivity rate is now 1.8%. That’s a huge drop from Jan. 12, when it was 20.5%.
And our adjusted coronavirus daily case rate is lower than it’s been since the state implemented its four-tier reopening system in August. As of today, the county’s daily rate (averaged over the past seven days) was 3.7 cases per 100,000 people, low enough to qualify for the orange tier. If we can stay below four cases per 100,000 people for another week, we can graduate from the red tier and allow even more businesses and public spaces to open.
Savor it, people! This is great.
And here’s some other amazing news: According to the L.A. Times coronavirus tracker, 26% of Californians have received their first dose of the vaccine, and 12.6% of us are fully vaccinated.
It will take a lot more than that to get to herd immunity, but this is a tremendous step forward — especially as hundreds of thousands of vaccinations are being administered in the state each day.
I’m well aware that problems still abound. As we’ll discuss later, the vaccine is not distributed equally. The virus took another 191 Californians’ lives yesterday. And even with more than 1 in 4 of us at least partially vaccinated, we have a ways to go before life returns to normal.
In addition, L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer warned that the rise of cases on the East Coast could be heading our way.
“Often, the East Coast experiences increases in cases before the West Coast and that, typically, L.A. County is a few weeks behind New York,” she told county supervisors Tuesday. “While conditions have definitely changed, particularly as we’ve vaccinated millions of individuals over the past three months, we do not yet have enough vaccine protection across the county to prevent more transmission if we’re not extraordinarily careful in these next few weeks.”
Is the worst over for California? I don’t know. Will there be another surge? Possibly. Can we expect more scary variants? Maybe.
But let’s just pause from all the worrying for a moment and celebrate where we are, right now: safer than we’ve been in months.
By the numbers
California cases, deaths and vaccinations as of 6:07 p.m. Tuesday:
Ready for some more good news?
In addition to L.A. County, Orange County has banked one week’s worth of coronavirus metrics necessary to progress into the orange tier — a move that would allow a more widespread unlocking of businesses and other public spaces.
The counties’ progression, which could happen as soon as next week if the metrics hold steady, would accelerate the recent dash up the state’s reopening ladder, my colleague Luke Money reports.
According to state data released Tuesday, a handful of counties are already moving into the orange tier this week: San Francisco, Santa Clara, Marin, Trinity, Lassen and Yolo. They will join Mariposa, Plumas and San Mateo counties.
Just two counties, Alpine and Sierra, have made it all the way to yellow.
Moving into the red tier this week are Kern, Nevada and Stanislaus counties.
Kern’s progression means the entire southern third of the state has moved out of the purple tier — a dramatic change from the fall-and-winter surge, which struck the region especially hard. Eight counties remain in the purple tier, and most of them are in the Central Valley.
So, what will it mean for L.A. and Orange counties to get into the orange tier?
Capacity restrictions will be lifted in stores (although pandemic-related safety modifications still apply); allowable indoor capacity increases from 25% to 50% for places of worship, museums, zoos and aquariums; maximum indoor restaurant and movie theater capacity rises from 25% or 100 people (whichever is fewer) to 50% or 200 people (whichever is fewer); and indoor gym and yoga studio capacity rises from 10% to 25%.
And finally, bars can reopen outdoors without serving food. Progress!
Now that we’ve celebrated the good news, it’s time to turn to the challenges ahead.
Although more than 10 million Californians have already received at least one shot of COVID-19 vaccine, those shots have been going disproportionately to white people.
Take Orange County, where Latino residents make up 34% of the population but represent just 14% of the people who got at least one shot between Dec. 15 and March 15.
On the other hand, white residents account for 40% of the population, and 44% of them got at least one shot. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are also slightly overrepresented, at 22% of the population and 24% of the vaccinated. Black residents comprise 2% of the population and 1% of the vaccinated.
What’s going on? Officials and advocates for the communities hit hardest by the pandemic say the low vaccination rates among Latino residents can be attributed in part to suspicion of the vaccine, as well as to the difficulties of making and traveling to appointments.
“Data shows generally that Latinos tend to be hourly wage earners, so you don’t have the luxury to sit there all day and try to figure out how to get grandpa or your dad or even yourself vaccinated,” said Anaheim City Council Member Jose Moreno. “It automatically makes things more difficult.”
In addition, the state’s universal eligibility for those 65 and older creates an imbalance, since the Black and Latino communities skew younger.
The issue is getting attention. In February, community groups partnered with the county, cities and schools to set up vaccination sites inside gathering spaces like school gymnasiums and senior centers.
County Supervisor Doug Chaffee is hopeful that as more people are vaccinated at these community clinics, their example will help to combat lingering hesitancy. “Once we have more people in the community going to the neighborhood pods and seeing that the process is easy and effortless, we are going to have more people wanting to get vaccinated,” he said.
And on a personal note, I especially enjoyed this story about Californians of Taiwanese descent moving to Taiwan during the pandemic.
Despite struggles with language and culture, the appeal is obvious. Taiwan controlled its coronavirus caseload nearly a year ago by inspecting inbound flights, quarantining all arrivals and tracing the contacts of anyone with COVID-19. Taiwan has reported just under 1,000 cases and 10 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
Kids attend classes in person, not online, and families can go out without restrictions because Taiwan managed to contain the virus early and avert stay-at-home orders.
Sounds like a dream.
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
Once again, AstraZeneca is facing questions about its vaccine — this time from the National Institutes of Health.
The company may have included “outdated information” in touting the effectiveness of its COVID-19 vaccine in a U.S. clinical trial, federal health officials said Tuesday in an unusual public rift that could further erode confidence in the shot.
In response, AstraZeneca said it is working on up-to-date information. The company said the more recent findings are consistent with its initial announcement that the vaccine offers strong protection against the disease. It promised an update within 48 hours.
The U.S. study was supposed to help settle lingering questions about the effectiveness of a vaccine that is being widely used in Europe and other parts of the world. The company was expected to seek emergency-use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration soon.
But that was before the extraordinary rebuke from the independent data and safety monitoring board that is overseeing the company’s clinical trial. The board scolded the company for cherry-picking data, according to a senior administration official.
In a letter, members of the independent panel told AstraZeneca and U.S. health leaders they were concerned the company chose to use data that was outdated and potentially misleading instead of using the most recent and complete findings, according to an administration official.
The letter goes on to say, “Decisions like this are what erode public trust in the scientific process.”
The NIH’s Dr. Anthony Fauci told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that the incident “really is what you call an unforced error” and that he expects the discrepancy to be straightened out.
Fauci also said the episode shows the U.S. regulatory system is working: “The data and safety monitoring board picking up this discrepancy was an example of a safeguard.”
In other deeply disturbing news, my colleague Anita Chabria reports on a troubling shift in the right-wing QAnon movement toward a new vein of conspiracy that blends anti-Chinese and anti-Jewish tropes with fears of vaccines and a global plot to take over the world.
It’s a QAnon rebranding that allows conspiracy theorists to pivot after a year of political upheaval, scrutiny and disappointing predictions, said researcher Joel Finkelstein, director of Rutgers University’s Network Contagion Research Institute.
It also marks a shift from the wild lies the movement spread both before the election and in subsequent efforts to keep former President Trump in office. Finkelstein and others said the switch, and the emphasis on suspicion toward Asians and Jews, could lead to more violence.
And finally, I was surprised to learn that the number of personal and business bankruptcies filed for in the U.S. last year fell by nearly 30% from 2019, despite the economic upheaval brought on by COVID-19.
There are some obvious reasons that help explain the counterintuitive trend, my colleague Laurence Darmiento writes. Those include the deluge of cash the U.S. government has pumped into the economy to help keep entire industries and businesses afloat, as well as stimulus checks showered on even middle-class families, including the $1,400 payouts that landed this month.
Other measures to protect individuals from pandemic turmoil have also helped prevent personal bankruptcies, including eviction bans, foreclosure moratoriums and federal student-loan payment freezes. These measures were extended by the Biden administration, but they’re set to expire this year.
Your questions answered
Today’s question comes from readers who want to know: What is a data and safety monitoring board, and how does it ensure that vaccine trial results are accurate?
As you read earlier, these boards are in the news today thanks to the U.S. clinical trial of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine. In fact, every vaccine trial is overseen by a data and safety monitoring board, or DSMB, but they usually keep a low profile.
These boards comprise scientists and statisticians who are experts in their fields but have no ties to either the government or the pharmaceutical company that is testing a vaccine or medication.
In the AstraZeneca trial, just like the trials of the other vaccines in use, some participants were randomly assigned to get the vaccine, and the rest got placebos — and neither the participants nor their doctors know which was which. Only the DSMB has the authority to unlock the code and reveal who got which. The board can also check on how study participants are faring before a trial is finished.
The DSMB watches for safety concerns and determines when the study has met a predetermined milestone that means it’s time for an effectiveness calculation. It was the NIH-appointed DSMB that raised the concerns about the data AstraZeneca reported for its trial.
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