Coronavirus Today: The perils of public health service
Good evening. I’m Thuc Nhi Nguyen, and it’s Monday, April 26. So much has changed about the pandemic since I was here last, and I’m happy to be back keeping you updated on the latest news. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.
During normal times, public health officials work in anonymity. They track measles outbreaks or sexually transmitted infections and test children for lead exposure. That quiet line of work is now just as much a relic of pre-pandemic life as carefree air travel.
COVID-19 has made health experts, from those on the national level like Dr. Anthony Fauci to those working with local communities like Los Angeles County’s Barbara Ferrer, into household names. For many, that new level of notoriety comes at a cost.
Dr. Gail Newel received so many threats from extremists over the last year that she was forced to withdraw from the community she serves. The health officer in Santa Cruz County came under intense scrutiny from politicians and the public over mask mandates, business closures and interruptions to daily life as the pandemic continued.
In the beginning, it was angry emails and voicemails. Residents complained about beach closures and intrusions on personal freedoms. Things quickly became personal when messages included offensive, misogynistic language. Newel received letters that stated her address and names of her children. Some had photographs of her home from close range, accompanied by warnings such as “Look out; we’re coming for you.”
In May, protesters broke through the gates to her private hillside neighborhood, surrounded her home and chanted, “Gail to jail.” They repeated the harassment every Sunday for weeks.
“I’m willing to be a public servant, but I don’t think that includes having people trespass onto my private property,” she said. “I was quite worried for my family and for myself and our safety.”
Newel was hardly the only target in her community. Dr. Sara Cody, the health officer for Santa Clara County, received so many credible threats that she and her family were given 24-hour security details. Santa Cruz County Health Services Director Mimi Hall’s husband bought a gun for protection at home.
And it’s not just health officials feeling the heat — anything resembling government authority can become a targets for the same loose-knit militia and white nationalist groups that stormed the U.S. Capitol in January.
Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller of the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office died in an ambush at the home of Steven Carrillo, an active-duty Air Force sergeant who owned a van matching a description of a vehicle used in a drive-by shooting in Oakland during a Black Lives Matter protest. Carrillo has been tied to an active state faction of the Boogaloo Bois, a secretive and decentralized anti-government movement that, unlike many of the groups pushing back against public health measures, is also anti-cop. Threatening letters referencing the “boogaloo” movement were later sent to Hall, Gutzwiller’s widow and the sheriff’s department.
Adherents of a different movement the FBI characterizes as extremist and a form of domestic terrorism broke into Santa Cruz Police Chief Andrew Mills’ home and left papers on his bedroom pillow. The group, which also left documents at Newel’s home, was angry that Mills supported the health officer’s closure orders and mask mandates.
“I never thought in my career that I would see professionals, doctors being threatened for doing their job,” Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart said. “It’s been mind-boggling to me.”
By the numbers
California cases, deaths and vaccinations as of 6:59 p.m. Monday:
Call it a comeback. California is on top.
The state that was caught in a tsunami of coronavirus infections and deaths a few months ago now has the lowest coronavirus case rate in the nation, with a seven-day rate of 32.5 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The progress doesn’t diminish the toll of the surge that claimed more than 10,000 lives in L.A. County alone in December and January. But it certainly illustrates the tremendous strides made against COVID-19 in the state.
Even relaxed restrictions haven’t hindered the positive trends, allowing California to take the title from Hawaii this week. The Aloha State is reporting 36.8 new cases over the last seven days per 100,000 people, while the national average is 114.7.
The sacrifices it took to get here may wind up costing Gov. Gavin Newsom his job. Months of pushback against California’s strict public health guidelines fueled a Republican-led effort to remove him from office. And now it’s official: Unless courts intervene, Newsom will face a recall election sometime before the end of the year.
It’s a dramatic fall from grace for Newsom, who won the 2018 election by the largest vote margin in modern history. There were whispers of a presidential run, but a once-in-a-century pandemic brought him down quickly as many residents became fed up with the state’s aggressive — and sometimes clumsy — attempts to curb the coronavirus.
Mask mandates and restrictions on dining and some indoor businesses helped California stand out as an early leader during the pandemic. But the economy suffered and millions found themselves out of work. On top of that, parents became fed up with distance learning after schools shut down for months on end.
Things got only worse in November when Newsom attended a birthday party for a lobbyist at the upscale French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley after pleading with Californians to stay home and avoid multifamily gatherings. Critics accused the wealthy governor of hypocrisy and of enjoying the everyday freedoms and luxuries that were barred for many in the state.
Newsom may get a boost from California lawmakers who approved the last part of a COVID-19 economic recovery package Monday. A bill that provides up to $6.8 billion in state tax breaks for California businesses will now go to the governor, who is expected to sign it.
The bill allows businesses to avoid paying state taxes on forgiven loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program and to deduct expenses paid for using loan funds.
California’s gradually improving coronavirus situation paved the way for schools to reopen, but in the L.A. Unified School District, fewer than half of the elementary school students who were expected to returned to class in the first week actually showed up, my colleague Howard Blume reports.
The number improved significantly the second week, going from about 45% of expected students in 61 elementary campuses on April 15 to 79% the following week. LAUSD middle and high schools will begin in-person learning on Tuesday, with about 1 in 4 middle school students expected back. One in 5 high school students are slated to return to classrooms, according to recent district data.
“It’s going to be a gradual process like this as families see how it’s working and hear from friends and neighbors about their child’s experience in schools,” Supt. Austin Beutner said in remarks prepared for his weekly Monday broadcast. “COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on many families in the communities we serve and created real fears about the virus.”
Major amusement parks are also welcoming visitors back, but Disneyland’s impending return will cost Orange County a mass vaccination site.
The inoculation center at the Anaheim theme park will close Friday as Disneyland Resort reopens for visitors. People with appointments can continue to get their shots through the end of the week. For now, other walk-up vaccinations continue at the Anaheim Convention Center, Soka University, the Orange County fairgrounds, Santa Ana College and mobile clinics.
A drive-through mass vaccination clinic opened Monday at the Great Park in Irvine. And residents needing an accessible drive-through option can schedule vaccinations at several other sites around the county, including Santa Ana College, Soka University in Aliso Viejo and the Orange County fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.
California will try to speed up vaccinations now that the pause in administration of the Johnson & Johnson shots is over.
The seven-day average of daily vaccinations peaked on April 11, with 394,326 doses going into arms. That was two days before use of the one-shot vaccine was suspended after reports of a rare clotting disorder among a small number of recipients.
On Friday, the day the pause was lifted, the seven-day average of daily vaccinations was 329,483 — a 16% decline. That was the lowest seven-day trend since the end of March.
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
One of the most confounding consequences of the coronavirus has been what’s become known as “long COVID.” The syndrome can affect COVID-19 survivors for months after they’ve recovered from the disease, plaguing them with an array of symptoms including severe fatigue, diminished cognitive function or upset stomachs.
The National Institutes of Health announced a $1.15-billion initiative in February to study COVID-19’s long-term effects, and activists are mobilizing through grass-roots organizations to make sure the disease and its lingering symptoms remain in the public eye as the pandemic wears on, my colleague Thomas Curwen reports.
Organizations such as Body Politic COVID-19 Support Group apply for grants, contribute to research and provide a much-needed emotional boost for people navigating the disease’s mysterious aftereffects.
For Angela Meriquez Vázquez, a 33-year-old who was infected with COVID-19 in March 2020, Body Politic was the only place she felt heard after emergency room doctors dismissed her long COVID symptoms of chest pains and heart palpitations as a panic attack. She started posting reports she found on the internet and is now the organization’s vice president.
Patient-Led Research, a group started by members of Body Politic, helped establish an early understanding of long COVID by publishing a report that characterized the symptoms nearly 3,800 members experienced.
Another group, Survivor Corps, was founded to help individuals donate convalescent plasma and enroll in COVID-19 studies. A poll of its members found that about 40% of them saw their symptoms improve after being vaccinated. Those results prompted an immunologist at Yale School of Medicine to launch a study on whether vaccines can help treat the mysterious condition.
Speaking of vaccines, the White House announced Monday that the U.S. will share its entire supply of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine with the world once the shots are authorized for use by the Food and Drug Administration. As many as 60 million doses are expected to be available for export in the coming months.
The announcement reflects the fact that the Biden administration is growing increasingly confident that the three vaccines being administered in the U.S. now will be sufficient for the country.
The final destination for the AstraZeneca shots has yet to be determined, but Mexico and Canada have already asked for more doses in addition to the 4 million shots they’ve already been allocated. Our neighbors are only two of the dozens of countries looking for help in the fight against COVID-19.
With optimism surrounding the steadily increasing vaccination numbers in this country, it’s easy to forget how dire the COVID-19 situation is elsewhere. We’re planning for summer holidays and making restaurant reservations for the first time in a year, but globally, coronavirus case rates have never been higher, my colleagues report.
According to the World Health Organization, almost 5.7 million new cases were reported worldwide last week — nearly double the seven-day average in late February. The previous weekly high came in early January, with slightly over 5 million cases.
These days, the majority of cases are coming from India, which has set records for five straight days. On Monday, there were more than 350,000 new infections in the country that only two months ago was allowing people to gather for weddings and religious festivals. Doctors are inundated with patients gasping for air, and crematoriums are overwhelmed with bodies.
New variants may be at the center of the surging pandemic. A strain known as B.1.617 may be fueling the devastation in India because it appears more contagious and more resistant to vaccines. And doctors in Brazil are blaming the P.1 variant for a recent explosion of infections in that country.
Vaccines have proved largely effective against most coronavirus strains, but less than 2% of India’s population is fully vaccinated and less than 5% of people in Brazil are fully protected. Experts say the shortage of vaccines increases the likelihood that additional variants that are even more dangerous will emerge.
“The real worry is that there’s going to be a variant that comes along that the best of our vaccines do not afford protection,” said Dr. Tim Schacker, an infectious disease expert and the vice dean for research at University of Minnesota Medical School.
Your questions answered
Today’s question comes from readers who want to know: What activities are safe for families when kids still aren’t vaccinated?
There’s good news, parents: You don’t have to plan for another summer of isolation.
Even though children younger than 16 can’t get the COVID-19 vaccine (yet), their risk of infection will drop significantly as coronavirus case rates continue to fall and vaccinations keep rising. That means more activities will be safer for kids, but with some caveats, my colleague Deborah Netburn reports.
Going to museums, participating in sports and and attending outdoor, masked-up play dates could be safe for kids this summer, experts said. Museums that follow social distancing, enforce mask-wearing and operate at a reduced capacity are even OK as indoor activities. Outdoor sports are generally low-risk, especially if kids are wearing masks, but be wary of off-the-field socializing like carpooling or post-game victory meals.
In general, experts advise opting for the outdoors as opposed to being indoors and keeping masks on when possible. If you have a summer vacation on the horizon, you should think twice about air travel. If you do fly, some of the risks can be mitigated by scheduling your flights during less popular times, reserving a whole row of seats for your family and keeping unvaccinated kids masked as much as possible.
Children who are healthy and don’t have underlying health conditions are much less vulnerable to COVID-19 than adults, but nothing is completely risk-free in this pandemic world, so parents will have to decide for themselves what they’re comfortable with.
“It’s not black and white,” said Dr. Annabelle De St. Maurice, who heads pediatric infection control for UCLA Health. “A lot of this depends on your own risk tolerance, your family’s general health status and your values. It runs on a spectrum.”
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