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Coronavirus Today: Bakersfield or bust

Good evening. I’m Melody Petersen, and it’s Wednesday, April 7. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

Bakersfield has become the hot destination for young Angelenos who want the COVID-19 vaccine but don’t yet qualify for the shots at home.

The vaccine seekers have included writers, engineers and Hollywood actors, who say the vaccination site at Cal State Bakersfield was welcoming Angelenos with open arms, writes my colleague Laura J. Nelson.

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Southern Californians began making four-hour round-trip excursions to the Central Valley after word spread that the site had more doses than patients and was accepting anyone 16 and older.

By Monday night, “Bakersfield” was trending on Twitter.

“The whole way there, and the whole way back, my friend and I were kind of in a daze,” said Julie Greiner, 25, a comedy writer from Glendale who got ice cream to celebrate her vaccination. “We were like, did this really happen?”

The site’s excess capacity is due in part to a relatively high rate of vaccine hesitancy in Kern County, according to officials at Kaiser Permanente, which is helping to run the site.

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Also, the county skews young; many residents became eligible only in the last few weeks. About 24% of people living in Kern County have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared with 33% of residents statewide, according to the Los Angeles Times vaccine tracker.

The vaccination site was designed to administer 5,400 shots per day. Yet only about 900 people showed up each day during the first week after its March 26 opening.

When officials were planning the site, the idea of people arriving from other counties “didn’t really cross our minds,” said David Womack, senior vice president at Kaiser in Kern County.

But word spread quickly. By day three, staff had noticed out-of-county visitors. Now, nurses are seeing “a few hundred” Southern California patients per day, he said.

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The site’s popularity exploded last weekend, when actor Wil Wheaton — known for his role in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” — told his 1.1 million Instagram followers that he had visited. After he got a Pfizer-BioNTech jab, he wrote in a photo caption, he “cried a little bit” with relief.

About 2,500 people were vaccinated Monday, and the site was on track Tuesday to break that record, Womack said. He cautioned that the clinic might start limiting walk-up vaccinations, or restricting them to certain hours of the day, because they slow the check-in process.

“If the day comes when we have to do that,” he said, “we just ask that people understand.”

On Tuesday morning, cars with license plate frames from dealerships in El Monte, Hollywood, Glendale, Alhambra, Carson and Santa Monica were dotted across the parking lot.

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As patients walked out, workers in orange T-shirts whooped, applauded and cheered. One yelled, “Congratulations! Tell your friends!” to a couple wearing Dodgers hats as they walked back to their car holding hands.

Karla Hernández, 35, who lives in L.A.’s Koreatown, worried that Central Valley residents weren’t getting vaccinated because of misinformation spreading in the community.

She stopped at Los Reyes Market in south Bakersfield after getting vaccinated and talked to a few employees, asking if they knew about the campus site.

“It’s concerning to me that not enough people from Bakersfield are going,” she said before heading back to L.A.

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By the numbers

California cases, deaths and vaccinations as of 6:24 p.m. Wednesday:

3,663,654 confirmed cases, up 1,764 today; 59,554 deaths, up 75 today; 34.3% 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 -4%, deaths -39%. Vaccines: 34.3% have had a dose, 19.3% fully vaccinated. School: 49% of students can return

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Across California

Gov. Gavin Newsom said this week he would “fully reopen” the state’s economy on June 15. If all goes according to plan, the state will stop sorting counties into four color-coded tiers that limit business and other activities based on metrics such as daily infection rates and the percentage of test results that come back positive.

Newsom also said some things will not return to normal on that date. For instance, face masks will still be required.

But as long as the state continues to make progress against the coronavirus, he said, many government-mandated rules — including limits on capacity at restaurants, malls and gyms — would disappear.

The governor said his timeline is subject to change. And here are four things that what must happen before June 15 for his plan to be enacted, according to an analysis by Times reporters.

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1.) Many more Californians must be vaccinated. Based on rising vaccine supplies, this goal appears more achievable than ever.

This week, California received 2.4 million vaccine doses, a 33% increase from two weeks ago. And there’s hope those shipments will soon expand even more. State officials have estimated supplies could swell to more than 3 million doses a week in the second half of this month.

Part of the reason June 15 was chosen as the target date was that it falls two months after the state plans to extend vaccine eligibility to all adults, said Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s Health and Human Services secretary.

“We wanted to be able to provide at least a couple of weeks, two to three weeks, for individuals interested in getting vaccinated who suddenly become eligible on April 15 to get in line,” he said.

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Californians must also be willing to get the shots. Some recent data raise concerns. In the state’s northern rural counties, many seniors have still not been vaccinated.

2.) Hospitalizations must remain low. So far, California has bucked the spring COVID-19 rise seen in other parts of the nation. And hospitalizations have continued to go down.

“If we see any concerning rise in our hospitalizations, we will take the necessary precautions,” Ghaly said. “But right now, we are hopeful in what we’re seeing as we continue to build on the 20 million vaccines already administered.”

3.) Potentially dangerous virus variants can’t increase hospitalizations and deaths. Health officials continue to warn that variants — some of which have been shown to be more infectious — remain a threat.

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Of particular concern is the U.K. variant, the most prevalent one throughout the United States. It’s currently responsible for more than 16,000 cases nationwide. But it accounts only for about 10% of cases in California, according to CDC data, because our homegrown strain is so dominant.

4.) Californians must continue to keep themselves and others safe. The state has already been reopening rapidly as coronavirus infections decline. And that is bringing more crowds and concerns.

While many of those venturing out may have been vaccinated, health officials continue to urge residents to remain vigilant and do their part to tamp down transmission of the virus — especially as other states report new surges.

While L.A County’s case rate has dropped to a level not seen since the early days of the pandemic, Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said that still “means that there are hundreds and hundreds of known cases that get diagnosed each day,” and the actual number of people being infected is likely higher.

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New research published Wednesday should bolster hopes that the state can meet these four goals. A team led by scientists at Duke University found that existing vaccines are indeed effective against the California variant.

The team took blood samples from people who had received the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Moderna or a vaccine candidate from Novavax that has not yet been authorized for use in the U.S. Then they introduced engineered versions of various viral variants to these blood samples and waited to see what kind of immune system response they elicited.

Compared with a previously dominant coronavirus strain known as D614G, the California strain was slightly less susceptible to both vaccines, though they still generated effective protection, the researchers found. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was not part of the study, but it would probably perform about as well as the Moderna vaccine because it uses similar technology.

“We’re not expecting this variant to be a problem for the vaccines — so that’s really good news,” study leader David Montefiori said.

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California reopening map showing 12 more counties in orange tier, including San Diego, Ventura, San Bernardino and Riverside.
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

President Biden doesn’t plan to have the federal government issue so-called vaccine passports, which have raised some privacy concerns.

“The government is not now, nor will we be, supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.”

The administration wants to protect Americans’ privacy and doesn’t want vaccine passports “used against people unfairly,” Psaki said.

Such passports are typically a smartphone app with a code that verifies whether someone has been vaccinated against COVID-19. Some businesses and colleges hope to use them as a way to resume pre-pandemic operations safely.

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For example, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings is planning to require guests and crew members to show proof of vaccination when it resumes trips from U.S. ports. And a group of colleges that includes Brown University will require students to get the vaccine in order to return to campus in the fall.

At least two states have already prohibited the use of vaccine passports. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, issued an order Tuesday that forbids state agencies and any entity receiving public money from requiring the passports. That move followed a similar ban by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, also a Republican.

The White House has previously said any work on the passports should be led by the private and not-for-profit sectors. Psaki said the administration would soon provide guidance “that provides important answers to questions that Americans have, in particular around concerns about privacy, security or discrimination.”

The White House is also grappling with another issue: whether the federal government should change how it distributes vaccines by sending more doses to states where cases are rising fastest.

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Nearly half of new coronavirus infections nationwide are in just five states: New York, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Those states are home to 22% of the U.S. population, but they accounted for 44% of the nation’s new COVID-19 infections in the latest available seven-day period, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

The heavy concentration of new cases in these states has prompted some experts and elected officials to call on Biden to ship extra doses there — a change that could mean fewer available to California.

So far, the White House has shown no sign of shifting from its policy of dividing the vaccine among states based on population.

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The surge in cases has been especially pronounced in Michigan, where the seven-day average of daily new infections reached 6,719 cases Sunday — more than double two weeks before.

Meanwhile, in Britain, drug regulators have decided to stop giving the COVID-19 vaccine made by AstraZeneca to people younger than 30 because of a rare risk of blood clots.

The U.K.’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency said that while it is studying the possible connection between AstraZeneca’s vaccine and blood clots, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines should be offered to those younger adults instead. Dr. June Raine, the agency’s head, said that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine “continue to outweigh the risks for the vast majority of people.”

The decision was announced soon after the European Union’s drug regulator said it had found a “possible link” between the vaccine and a rare clotting disorder. But that agency did not recommend any new restrictions on the vaccine.

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AstraZeneca has not yet applied to U.S. regulators for an emergency use authorization, which it would need to distribute the vaccine here.

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from readers who want to know: How do we know the COVID-19 vaccines are safe?

Polls indicate that concerns about side effects are the main reason that about 30% of the public is reluctant to get vaccinated. Two members of The Times’ data team — Sean Greene and Vanessa Martínez — recently dug into the data that we have about the safety of these vaccines and came to the conclusion that those data are reassuring.

Greene and Martínez analyzed reports of adverse reactions that have been sent to a government database known as the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS. The system allows patients — or their physicians, family members or lawyers — to submit a report of a health problem experienced after getting a shot.

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The VAERS data are not perfect, they note, because the system relies on people to voluntarily send in reports.

To date, the database contains more than 50,000 reports of adverse reactions from the three COVID-19 vaccines currently authorized for use in the U.S. Fewer than 8,000 of those reports were considered serious. Among the serious adverse reactions are rare occurrences of anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction.

To some, those numbers may seem concerning. But considering that more than 150 million COVID-19 vaccine shots have been administered, serious adverse reactions are actually extremely rare.

Those cases also pale in comparison to the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths. At least 550,000 Americans have died as a result of COVID-19, according to official counts.

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VAERS is only one of several systems being used to monitor the vaccines’ safety. Another is the Vaccine Safety Datalink, or VSD, which uses the electronic health records of about 12 million patients to conduct near real-time surveillance. It gives researchers a more robust look at a patient’s health before and after vaccination — something VAERS cannot do.

Safety monitoring will continue and expand as more vaccines are administered and authorized for use.

“With all of these systems in place, we’re really just not seeing anything of concern right now,” said Allison Naleway, an investigator with the VSD and Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research. “So that’s good news for our public.”

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.

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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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