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Coronavirus Today: How long is our honeymoon?

Good evening. I’m Amina Khan, and it’s Tuesday, March 30. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

Things are looking sunnier in California, and it’s not just the weather. COVID-19 hospitalizations are down 28% from two weeks ago. The number of average daily coronavirus cases is down 16% since then, dipping below 3,000 per day. It feels like a world away from the winter surge, when average daily cases hovered around a staggering 45,000 on Dec. 22.

But experts and public health officials are growing increasingly worried that the rise in cases seen in other parts of the U.S. and in Europe could eventually dim California’s hard-won progress on the pandemic.

“Certainly in California, there’s a very good chance that we’re going to have a brief honeymoon, and then it will get worse again. I wouldn’t be surprised,” said Dr. Stefano Bertozzi, professor of health policy and dean emeritus of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

California has a lot going for it compared to certain other states and the nation at large. Its coronavirus positivity rate over the last seven days has been 1.5% — far below the rate of 8.3% in New Jersey, 8.8% in Florida and 12.6% in Michigan.

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But in the past, California has managed only for so long to fend off the surges of COVID-19 that affect other parts of the country.

“This past year indicates that 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,” Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said last week.

And coronavirus numbers across the country are trending in the wrong direction. As of Sunday, the seven-day national average for newly reported cases was 61,632, up 13% from the week prior, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“When we see that uptick in cases, what we have seen before is that things really have a tendency to surge and surge big,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director.

Daily COVID-19 hospitalizations are up 4% from the previous week, and daily COVID-19 deaths are up nearly 3%, resulting in roughly 1,000 deaths a day.

“We know that travel is up, and I just worry that we will see the surges that we saw over the summer and over the winter again,” Walensky said.

A lot of those travelers are passing through Los Angeles. On Sunday, 55,169 passengers went through security at Los Angeles International Airport, the highest single-day figure since the pandemic began. (That’s still fewer than half the number from the same date in 2019.)

That may be because this is a particularly tempting time to travel for pandemic-weary Californians and visitors. It’s spring break season, a time when young adults often flock to beaches and bars, and holidays like Easter and Passover typically encourage family, friends and fellows in faith to gather.

Both of these situations provide fertile ground for the coronavirus to spread easily — and fast.

Many visitors to L.A. are already saying they’re feeling pretty relaxed. Take Stephanie French, 32, and Mariah Sand, 39, who flew into L.A. from Seattle early Monday to enjoy the beach. They planned to take the red-eye back that night. “We just wanted some sun,” French said.

Neither she nor Sands wore a mask — French said she lost hers on the beach — and neither was sure if she would be taking the COVID-19 vaccine. They also said they’re not worried about a new surge or about new variants of the virus.

Here’s the problem, or one of the problems: Because it takes time for coronavirus cases to emerge — and still more time for a share of those infected to become sick enough to require hospitalization — it will take weeks to figure out whether a springtime surge will once again bring a flood of cases to California.

So while California’s numbers are looking good now, it’s worth remembering that the next few weeks will be crucial for the state to keep infection rates down and allow more people to get vaccinated.

“I know it’s been very lonely for a lot of folks. It’s been hard,” said Dr. David Hayes-Bautista, a distinguished professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “So there’s a real temptation to bust loose just for one night because ‘it doesn’t matter.’ Well, it does matter.”

By the numbers

California cases, deaths and vaccinations as of 6:21 p.m. Tuesday:

3,643,279 confirmed cases, up 2,269 today; 58,675 deaths, up 123 today; 29.4% of Californians at least partially vaccinated.

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

14 days: Cases -16%, deaths -15%. Vaccines: 29.4% have had a dose, 16% fully vaccinated. School: 29% of students can return.

Across California

Surge concerns aside, there’s no denying that the numbers right now are looking much better. That’s allowed both Los Angeles and Orange counties to move into the orange tier, the second-least-restrictive step in the state’s four-tier reopening process.

It’s a first for both counties, neither of which has until now managed to get the number of new infections low enough to advance this far. County officials called it a hard-fought gain in the battle against COVID-19, my colleague Luke Money reports — as well as a testament to the efforts of both individual actions and collective vigilance.

The move allows the counties to lift more restrictions on businesses and activities starting Wednesday. Orange County will fully align with the rules that the state’s orange tier allows then, but L.A. County plans to hold off for a bit.

Here’s what progressing to the orange tier means counties can allow:

  • Bars can reopen outdoors with some modifications and will no longer be required to also serve food.
  • Capacity restrictions can be lifted in stores, although social distancing and other pandemic safety modifications still apply. Capacity restrictions are relaxed somewhat for houses of worship, museums, zoos and aquariums, restaurants, movie theaters, and indoor gyms and yoga studios
  • Bowling alleys can reopen with modifications at 25% capacity. So can card rooms and satellite wagering sites.
  • Offices in nonessential industries can also reopen, though the state says workers should still be encouraged to work remotely.
  • Retail and grocery stores and libraries can operate at full capacity. Indoor malls’ common areas must remain closed, and food courts must operate at a reduced capacity.

And starting Thursday, amusement parks can be allowed to reopen at up to 15% capacity in the stricter red tier of the state’s reopening plan, and up to 25% capacity for those in the orange tier. (Universal Studios Hollywood will reopen April 16.) Effective that same day, California is also allowing limited fan attendance for outdoor sports and live performances, with the cap set at 33% capacity for counties in the orange tier.

And finally, because you can never have enough good news in the Golden State: The Monterey Bay Aquarium is set to reopen in May — at 25% capacity — after more than a year closed. It will grant members exclusive access for two weeks starting May 1, then open to the broader public May 15. In the meantime, my colleague Hailey Branson-Potts has asked the burning question: Will the sea critters notice?

“For a lot of our animals — say, the sponges and sea urchins — it is very hard to tell,” said Julie Packard, the aquarium’s executive director. “But for sure, the sea otters absolutely love to have human interaction. ... I’m sure it’ll be enriching for them to have all those people back in the building.”

California reopening map: Most counties are in the red tier, and Los Angeles and Orange counties are newly in the orange tier
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. As schools reopen around California, we’re also tracking who can go back, and where.

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Around the nation and the world

The pandemic has subjected all Americans to a risk of infection in shared spaces; for many Asian Americans moving through them, it has also exacerbated the threat of physical violence. In Washington, President Biden announced steps Tuesday to protect Asian Americans from discrimination and violent attacks, including the establishment of a Justice Department initiative to address rising hate crimes.

Under the initiative, the Justice Department will track reports of anti-Asian hate crimes and expand its outreach to community organizations. The FBI is also planning to hold training sessions for state and local law enforcement offices; other federal agencies are being directed to additional steps.

Biden’s announcement comes two weeks after shootings at Atlanta-area spas killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent — and as he has faced pressure from Asian American members of Congress to take stronger action. It also comes a day after a vicious attack on a 65-year-old Asian American woman as she walked to church near New York City’s Times Square, while bystanders failed to intervene.

On to the vaccine front: More than a dozen states are opening eligibility to all adults this week, marking a major expansion of COVID-19 shots for tens of millions of Americans, amid concerns about balancing supply and demand for the vaccines.

There’s good reason to speed the rollout: Walensky said Monday that she had a recurring feeling of “impending doom” about a potential fourth wave of infections after cases in the U.S. rose 10% over the last week.

But a new study by the CDC offered a finding that she said should offer hope: Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were 90% effective after two doses.

The rapid expansion has fueled concerns that the number of people rolling up their sleeves will far outstrip the available supply of shots, leading to frustration for millions of newly eligible people. But other officials say that with a flood of doses on the way, the more pressing concern is persuading as many people as possible to get the shots so the nation can reach herd immunity as soon as possible.

In Germany, several health authorities are again suspending the use of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine for residents under age 60, following new reports of unusual blood clots in people who had recently received the shots.

Officials in Berlin, Munich and the eastern state of Brandenburg paused vaccinations ahead of a meeting later Tuesday that included representatives from Germany’s 16 states. The meeting was called after Germany’s medical regulator said it had received 31 reports of rare blood clots in people who recently received the AstraZeneca vaccine. Nine of the people died, and all but two of the cases involved women aged 20 to 63, the Paul Ehrlich Institute said.

The decision came a day after a similar move by Canada, which began limiting injections to residents 55 and older.

Reports of an unusual form of blood clot in the head, known as sinus vein thrombosis, prompted several European countries temporarily to halt the use of the shot earlier this month. After a review by medical experts, the European Union’s drug regulator concluded that the vaccine’s benefits far outweighed the risks but recommended warning patients and doctors about possible rare side effects. Most of the EU’s 27 countries have since resumed using it.

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from a reader who wants to know: When can temperature checks at workplaces be phased out?

This question comes from a reader in Camarillo whose workplace still conducts daily temperature checks for those who come into the office. She wants to know when it can stop, assuming other masking and social distancing protocols remain in place.

If you’ve had to venture out during the pandemic, whether for work, doctor’s appointments or the like, there’s a good chance you’ve had your temperature checked with a contactless thermometer.

Here’s the thing: Temperature checks performed with a noncontact, infrared thermometer are not really reliable tools for measuring fever, according to Dr. Philip Mackowiak, an infectious disease expert and medical historian at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Part of the problem is that workers who use them may not consistently do so in the same way on every person, he said. There’s another issue: These thermometers often register lower-than-actual temperatures.

Also, keep in mind that people can transmit the virus before any telltale symptoms, including fever, really kick in — and that’s if they ever show any. A study in JAMA Network Open estimated that 59% of all coronavirus transmission came from asymptomatic people — 35% who were presymptomatic, and 24% from people who never developed symptoms at all.

Temperature checks risk giving people a false sense of security, experts say.

In a piece in Open Forum Infectious Diseases that he coauthored with Dr. William Wright of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Mackowiak laid out why using these thermometers for coronavirus temperature screenings does not work.

Nonetheless, he stopped short of saying that temperature checks should be phased out anytime soon.

“I think I would continue to screen using a noncontact thermometer,” he said in an interview. Some coronavirus cases with high fevers can be picked up with a temperature check — though he added that they’d probably also be detected based on other COVID-19 symptoms as well.

“I think more attention should be paid to the details of taking the temperatures, so that the person who’s doing it has some basic training,” he said. This means ensuring the wielder consistently aims at the same spot on the forehead, and from the same distance. And it may require tweaking the definition of a fever for these particular thermometers, he added. “We’re not talking about rocket science.”

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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