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Coronavirus Today: At least 16? Hello, vaccine!

Good evening. I’m Amina Khan, and it’s Thursday, March 25. I’m back to fill you in on all news coronavirus through the end of next week. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

We’ll kick off today’s edition with some great news for Californians: Starting April 1, all residents who are at least 50 years old will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, and on April 15, all residents 16 or older will join them.

Good news can seem rare amid a yearlong pandemic, so I want you to really feel this one. Forget it’s me, and picture Oprah instead: You get a vaccine, and you get a vaccine, and you get a vaccine!

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There. Feel good? I feel pretty good. Oprah has a way of doing that.

What’s the reason for this sudden but welcome change? Officials say they expect their supply of shots to go up. Way up.

“There’s bright light at the end of the tunnel,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Thursday in Santa Ana. The 53-year-old governor said he’s looking forward to getting his own shot.

As has been made abundantly clear throughout California’s vaccine rollout, being eligible for a shot isn’t necessarily the same as being able to get one immediately. It’s been a problem in the Golden State, where more than 13% of the population has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Thirty-seven states have done better than California.

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But an imminent influx of doses could make a dramatic difference in the state’s rollout — and for the people desperate to get the much-needed shots.

Consider this: The state was expected to receive about 1.8 million doses this week, including first and second shots. But based on current estimates, that will increase to roughly 2.5 million doses per week over the first half of April, and more than 3 million doses later in the month.

California’s move to open eligibility to everyone 16 and older comes roughly two weeks before the Biden administration’s target date of May 1. Many states, including Alaska, West Virginia and Mississippi, have already made the leap.

Right now, close to half of all Californians are eligible to roll up their sleeves. That includes adults 65 and older, healthcare workers, educators, people who are incarcerated or living in homeless shelters, essential workers such as those in the food industry or emergency services, public transit workers and janitors, and the nearly 5 million residents 16 and older who have disabilities or underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk of becoming seriously ill with COVID-19.

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Still, state and local officials have warned for weeks that supply would remain flat until late March or early April, limiting access to shots in parts of the state.

That didn’t stop some counties from making the vaccines more widely available: At least four already lowered their age thresholds to 50, and one — Tuolumne County — pushed it to 45. In addition, some have included a wider range of health conditions than the ones delineated by the state.

The influx of shots will aid the state’s efforts to stay a step ahead of the threat posed by emerging coronavirus variants. Some of them, including a homegrown strain, spread more readily than their predecessors. But the sooner more people are vaccinated, the sooner the virus will run out of people to infect and the fewer opportunities it will have to acquire more dangerous mutations.

“It really is, in some ways, a race of vaccines against variants,” said California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly.

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In the meantime, Newsom said, it’s vital for Californians to continue taking precautions to protect themselves and others.

“These mutations should make us mindful of the moment we’re in,” he said. “It’s not mission accomplished. We’re not spiking the football. This is not time to take down your guard — or, literally, as is the case, take off your mask.”

By the numbers

California cases, deaths and vaccinations as of 6:41 p.m. Thursday:

3,630,370 confirmed cases, up 2,492 today; 57,930 deaths, up 258 today; 15,979,099 vaccines administered, up 441,354 today.

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

In California, 27.2% of people have received at least one vaccine dose, and 13.2% are fully vaccinated.

Across California

There’s good reason to follow Newsom’s advice and stay on guard: Most of the coronavirus samples analyzed in L.A. County last week turned out to be variants that are thought to spread more easily, officials say.

There are some caveats here. Only 73 samples were tested — a fraction of new infections confirmed in the county each day — and the specimens were not randomly selected, so they may not be representative of the viruses circulating throughout the county. Still, the findings offer a sobering suggestion that some of the worrisome variants are continuing to spread in the area.

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Of the 73 specimens, 21 were identified as the highly contagious strain called B.1.1.7, which was first identified in the United Kingdom and thought to be as much as 50% more transmissible than other widely circulating versions of the virus. Recent evidence also suggests it’s 61% more likely to cause severe disease or death.

Twenty-five other test samples turned out to be the California variant known as B.1.427/B.1.429. Like the U.K. variant, it’s been labeled a “variant of concern” by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, because studies have found it to be about 20% more transmissible than other common variants.

“The fact that the majority of sampled specimens are variants of concern suggests that these variants are increasingly widespread in our community,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Wednesday. “And it emphasizes the importance of adhering to safety measures such as masking, social distancing and regular routine hand-washing to avoid increasing the chances that variants of concern become more prevalent.”

Though Ferrer said the results need to be interpreted with caution, she added that “it’s probably very safe to say that there are more variants circulating now than there were earlier in the year.”

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“That is what everybody’s worried about,” she added. “If we keep our case numbers down, we keep transmission of variants down, as well.”

While L.A. County has yet to find any cases of two other variants of concern — P.1 from Brazil and B.1.351 from South Africa — San Diego has not been so fortunate. County officials there have confirmed two cases involving the Brazil strain. One case involved a person who had recently arrived from Mexico and is not local to the area; the second person lives around San Diego. The two cases appear to be unrelated, officials said.

“The resident of San Diego County had no travel history, so that means that there must be at least one other case in San Diego,” said Dr. Eric McDonald, medical director of the county’s epidemiology department.

The CDC had listed 61 reported P.1 cases nationwide as of Tuesday, including four in California.

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Overall, coronavirus activity remains flat in San Diego County. Still, McDonald said the public should continue to take measures to prevent the virus’ spread in order to avoid a resurgence just as vaccination efforts are beginning to pay dividends.

Speaking of dividends, more counties appear to be on the verge of loosening their restrictions that were triggered by the pandemic. As early as next week, L.A. and Orange counties could move from the red tier of COVID-19 restrictions to the more lenient orange tier — territory on California’s four-level reopening road map that, until now, neither county has reached.

California’s tier framework sorts counties based on three factors: coronavirus case rates (adjusted based on how many tests are performed), the rate of positive test results, and a health-equity metric that ensures the positive test rate in poor communities is not significantly higher than in the county overall.

Counties eligible for the orange tier must have an adjusted rate of 3.9 or fewer new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people each day, a test positivity rate of under 5%, and a health-equity metric of less than 5.3.

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Entering the orange tier means that:

  • Counties can allow bars to reopen outdoors with modifications without needing to serve food.
  • Capacity restrictions are lifted in stores (with pandemic safety modifications in place) and partly eased in houses of worship, museums, zoos, aquariums, restaurants, movie theaters, indoor gyms and yoga studios.
  • Bowling alleys can reopen with modifications at 25% capacity, as can card rooms and satellite wagering sites.
  • Offices in nonessential industries can reopen, though workers should be encouraged to work remotely.
  • Amusement parks, which can open starting April 1 in red-tier counties, would be allowed to expand attendance to 25% capacity.
  • Starting April 1, the capacity limit for outdoor sports and live performances rises to 33% for orange-tier counties.
Reopening map: Six more counties in the orange tier (three in the Bay Area) and three more in the red, which now dominates.
A description of the four tiers California uses to determine when counties can let businesses open, based on coronavirus risk

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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

If you hadn’t heard of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study before the pandemic, you probably have by now. During this dark episode in American medicine, researchers allowed unsuspecting Black men to suffer through syphilis without offering treatment so they could study what the disease did to the men.

The Tuskegee study has been cited by academics, politicians and health officials — including the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci — as a reason that Black Americans have been more hesitant than white Americans to get vaccinated.

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But Karen Lincoln, a professor of social work at USC and founder of Advocates for African American Elders, says that if you actually ask Black seniors about the vaccine, Tuskegee doesn’t come up. Instead, people talk about contemporary racism and barriers to healthcare.

“It’s a scapegoat,” Lincoln said. “It’s an excuse. If you continue to use it as a way of explaining why many African Americans are hesitant, it almost absolves you of having to learn more, do more, involve other people — admit that racism is actually a thing today.” Check out this eye-opening story — it’s well worth a read.

In Washington, the White House said Thursday that it would be putting $10 billion toward driving up vaccination rates in low-income, minority and rural enclaves throughout the U.S.

The effort will include $6 billion for community health centers to expand vaccinations, testing and other preventive healthcare for people who are at higher risk from COVID-19. It’s being funded through the $1.9-trillion coronavirus relief package passed this month, and the money will be distributed to nearly 1,400 centers across the country starting in April.

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Some $3 billion, meanwhile, will go to bolstering “vaccine confidence.” That includes door-to-door outreach and education efforts to urge eligible people to sign up for vaccination appointments. The funds are being doled out to 64 jurisdictions and can be used by rural faith-based organizations and food-assistance and housing nonprofits in communities with high poverty rates.

Some funding will also go to help dialysis clinics vaccinate patients who receive dialysis, as well as to healthcare personnel in the clinics. An additional $300 million is set aside for community health worker services to support COVID-19 prevention and control, and $32 million is set aside for training, technical assistance and evaluation.

AstraZeneca reported Thursday that the vaccine it developed with Oxford University was 76% effective at preventing COVID-19 in its U.S. trial. That’s a slight downward revision of its earlier claim of 79% efficacy, after an independent monitoring board criticized the higher number for relying on what it called outdated information.

For what it’s worth, officials say 76% is still considered highly effective. Nonetheless, the adjustment comes amid shrinking public support in Europe for the company’s vaccine after months of confusion and missteps — and it could delay the vaccine’s ability to earn emergency use authorization from U.S. regulators.

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The findings were based on 190 symptomatic cases that developed among the 32,449 trial participants, and they include 49 cases that weren’t counted as part of the initial analysis. The company didn’t say how many cases occurred in people who got the vaccine and how many were in people who got the placebo, but all eight cases of severe disease occurred in the placebo group.

Company officials said the vaccine protected all participants against developing severe disease or requiring hospitalization. Those 65 and older were 85% less likely to develop symptomatic disease if they received the vaccine.

Regardless of what happens in the U.S., the AstraZeneca vaccine will probably play a key role in curbing the pandemic. It’s much cheaper than some other vaccines and much easier to distribute because it can be stored in regular refrigerators.

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from readers who want to know: How can I get a COVID-19 vaccine even if I don’t officially qualify for one yet?

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Although universal vaccine eligibility is now on the horizon in California, supply and eligibility remain limited for now. Officials have decried line-jumping, but for those who don’t want to wait for a shot at getting a shot, there are a few legitimate ways to do so, my colleague Hayley Smith reports. Among them:

  • Volunteer. The state launched a volunteer page on its My Turn website that allows Californians to assist with vaccination efforts in exchange for a chance at a shot. You don’t have to be a doctor or a nurse; volunteers can sign up to help with vaccine registration and administration support, or work as a site greeter. Volunteers who complete at least a four-hour shift are eligible, though shots are not guaranteed and are contingent on supply levels at county-run or city-run sites. Some Angelenos have reported long waiting lists for the program.
  • Get on standby or get a leftover. Leftover doses can potentially go to waste if they’re not administered within a certain time frame. Websites like Dr. B match people to local providers that send text notifications when they have unused supply at day’s end. Some folks are also calling up pharmacies at the end of each day to see if there are any unused doses left.
  • Wait. In three weeks, anyone 16 or older should be able to get a vaccine — around the same time that supply should be ramping up. Out of these three methods, patience may ultimately end up being the surest bet.

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

Need more vaccine help? Talk to your healthcare provider. Call the state’s COVID-19 hotline at (833) 422-4255. And consult our county-by-county guides to getting vaccinated.

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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