Coronavirus Today: Do the robot


Good evening. I’m Thuc Nhi Nguyen, and it’s Tuesday, May 4. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

It’s not just a plot for big-budget movies anymore. The robots are indeed coming.

As businesses recover from the challenges of the pandemic, some employers are opting for automation rather than rehiring workers or adding new ones, my colleague Don Lee reports.

Instead of janitors wearing moon suits, robots roll down airport hallways to spray disinfectant. Toll workers on the Pennsylvania Turnpike have been replaced with a cashless electronic system. Procter & Gamble added robots to its assembly lines, keeping operations going at full speed while still complying with social-distancing guidelines.

We’ve been moving toward greater automation for years, but the pandemic sped up the transition, which is evident in almost every business sector.

“COVID just highlighted that some of this may accelerate because there are potential interruptions to your businesses that you need to be prepared for,” said Mark Lewandowski, P&G’s director of robotics innovation.

In airports, that means “less manpower behind the scenes,” said Nyika Allen, director of aviation for Albuquerque. Five cleaning robots won’t replace the 50 custodial staffers who keep the city’s two airports running, but self-check stations and mechanized screening systems for checked bags have reduced the number of employees overall.


In Pennsylvania, plans to install a high-tech, no-cash system on the turnpike in 2022 were accelerated by 18 months because the pandemic reduced traffic and toll revenue. Layoffs came for about 500 toll workers and support staff.

The trend could spell trouble for the millions of Americans who became unemployed during the pandemic and were hoping to get their jobs back as the economy recovered.

Toll collector Mike Kelly pivoted quickly. He enrolled in a training course to learn how to operate big trucks and other heavy motorized equipment, then landed a new job with the turnpike driving maintenance trucks. The pay and benefits are similar to his old job, which had earned him $25 an hour with health insurance and a pension.

Kelly Armour, another toll collector, has struggled to bounce back. She went to stay with her elderly father and doesn’t know what will be next after her unemployment and severance pay run out.

“We gave a warm, human aspect to the job, and we were replaced by technology,” she said. “I was only essential when it suited them.”

By the numbers

California cases, deaths and vaccinations as of 5:49 p.m. Tuesday:

3,725,148 confirmed cases, up 2,718 today; 61,702 deaths, up 113 today; 47.9% 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 -25%, deaths -20%. Vaccines: 47.9% have had a dose, 32.6% fully vaccinated. School: 47% of students returned.
(Thuc Nhi Nguyen)

Across California

On this May the Fourth, we can celebrate reaching a milestone that seemed far, far away just a few short months ago.

Los Angeles County has entered the yellow tier, the least restrictive level of California’s four-step system to reopen the economy. The nation’s most populous county expects to issue a new health order allowing wider reopenings Wednesday and the changes will go into effect Thursday, my colleagues Luke Money and Rong-Gong Lin II report.


The changes will include increased capacity at gyms, movie theaters, amusement parks and stadiums as well as the long-awaited resumption of certain kinds of businesses that have yet to reopen, like saunas, steam rooms and bars that don’t serve food.

The adjusted coronavirus case rate in L.A. fell from 1.9 new cases per day per 100,000 people last week — which was just below the yellow-tier threshold of 2 — to 1.6 this week. That allowed the county to make the move.

L.A. was one of three counties that joined the exclusive yellow-tier club on Tuesday. San Francisco and Trinity counties also made the jump, bringing the total to seven.

With things reopening more, many are scrambling to figure out how we can make up for lost time. Students who fell behind in school while attending classes remotely were on track to face an extended academic year to catch up, but Los Angeles school officials have now abandoned that effort, my colleague Howard Blume reports.

Opposition from employees and lukewarm support from parents spelled the end for the proposal, which included options such as starting the school year early, regular Saturday school, longer school days or shortening existing holiday breaks.

In a poll conducted by the teachers union, 75% of respondents opposed a school year extension. Parents weren’t enthusiastic either: 44% of poll responders said they wanted no change to the calendar, 29% favored starting school two weeks earlier and 27% favored starting one week earlier and also shortening the three-week winter break by one week.

Teachers union President Cecily Myart-Cruz said there was good intent behind the extension proposal, but it lacked the planning needed to improve student learning or well-being.

“We cannot follow the most stressful and emotionally traumatic year our learning communities have ever had with the longest school year we’ve ever had,” she said.

L.A. Unified students have an outlet to release some of that stress now that the district has reopened the equipment on its school playgrounds. The closure had been a sore spot for many parents, who complained that while city and county playgrounds were open without coronavirus safeguards, students couldn’t even play during recess on equipment protected by the school district’s supposedly robust pandemic measures.

Access will be limited to one class of students at a time, and the equipment will be sanitized regularly.

A map of California showing 12 counties in the red tier, 39 in the orange tier and seven in the yellow 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.

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Around the nation and the world

Many businesses are struggling during the pandemic, but ironically, health insurance companies aren’t among them. They’ve enjoyed higher profits by collecting more premiums from members each month than they paid out in claims.

Now doctors and dentists want insurers to put that money toward relieving costs for healthcare providers who are dealing with greater expenses while treating patients during the pandemic.

Gloves that used to cost $2.39 per box now run $30. Dentists who could get by with 20-cent surgical masks must now spring for N95s that provide better protection against airborne particles and cost $2.50 each. Some healthcare providers have also limited the number of appointments available every day to follow social-distancing protocols.

A new law already passed in Washington state requires private health insurers to reimburse a portion of these costs — an additional $6.57 per patient — and will last through the end of the federally declared public health emergency.

A counterpart proposed in California doesn’t specify a dollar amount but would require private health plans regulated by the state to reimburse dental and medical practices for the “medically necessary” business expenses associated with a public health emergency. Insurers would be able to pass on the increased expenses in the form of higher premiums to their customers.

“When you look at the record profits on some of these publicly traded companies and what they’re showing their shareholders, this would be a drop in the bucket,” California Medical Assn. spokesperson Anthony York said.

We’ve already told you that local health officials across the country are struggling to combat the decline in demand for COVID-19 vaccine. Now President Biden is joining their fight, my colleague Chris Megerian reports.

Biden aims to have 70% of adults to receive at least one dose of a vaccine by July 4. That figure now stands at 56%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

His plan includes directing pharmacies to administer vaccinations without appointments, changing how the federal government distributes doses to states and sending hundreds of millions of shots to local community groups.

In an effort to reach vaccine-hesitant Americans personally, the federal government will give $250 million to local community groups that can answer questions about the vaccine and help arrange appointments for shots. Another $250 million will go to states, cities and territories and $130 million more will go toward additional vaccine education in underserved communities.

Among the many things that made 2020 so emotionally draining for Americans were not only the pandemic but also an overdue reckoning with racial injustice. Former President Trump‘s use of terms such as “China virus” conflated the two problems and fueled a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes.

More than a year into the pandemic, a new study has found that anti-Asian crimes are still rising around the country, my colleague Hayley Smith reports.

The study, from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, examined police data from 16 jurisdictions across the country. Researchers documented a 164% increase in reports of anti-Asian hate crimes in the first quarter of 2021 compared with the same period last year.

New York saw the biggest rise at 223%, followed by 140% in San Francisco. Anti-Asian hate crimes rose 80% in L.A., but stayed the same in some cities, such as Phoenix and Seattle.

Even if some of the increase is due to a greater willingness to recognize and report hate crimes, the size of the jump leaves no doubt that the crimes became more prevalent, said the report’s author Brian Levin.

Attackers were emboldened by Trump, who “legitimized the public expression of what some people may have secretly felt,” said Dorinne Kondo, professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at USC. But changing leadership and ending the pandemic in the United States won’t be enough to make the problems disappear.

“The thing about hate crime is it’s not irrational hate,” Kondo said. “It’s the absolutely predictable outcome of structural inequality, so these incidents will continue as long as there are structural inequalities.”

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from readers who want to know: I’m afraid of needles. What can I do to overcome my fear and get vaccinated?

First, know that you’re not alone. Surveys show that 1 in 4 adults probably feel some fear while getting vaccines. But you can still feel confident about rolling up your sleeve if you play your CARDs right, my colleague Sam-Omar Hall reports.

Dr. Anna Taddio, a pharmacist and researcher at the University of Toronto who focuses on mitigating pain and fear during medical procedures, developed the CARD system — which stands for comfort, ask, relax, distract — to help people cope with situations such as getting a vaccine. You can choose which cards to play on the way to your appointment:

  • Comfort: Try listening to music that you know and love or bring a friend who can serve as a role model.
  • Ask: You may feel more comfortable by learning more about what’s going to happen.
  • Relax: Deep belly-breathing may be a good tactic to use while preparing for your shot.
  • Distract: Chat with the person administering your shot, read the posters on the wall or bring a book.

And after you’ve received your shot, be sure to treat yourself so the experience ends on a memorable high note. A cocktail, a Double-Double and some retail therapy are all viable options.

If facing your vaccine makes you feel faint, clinical psychologist Katherine Dahlsgaard has a simple trick: Flex your muscles. She advises her patients to tense their legs, core and arms — but not the arm that’s getting the shot — until their face warms up, then come back to neutral. Before you know it, it’ll be over.

And one more note before we go: Monday’s newsletter misstated the rate of breakthrough infections in the U.S. The 9,245 coronavirus infections recorded by the CDC among the 95 million Americans who have been fully vaccinated represents a 0.01% rate of infection.

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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