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Coronavirus Today: Hoops or hospitals?

Good evening. I’m Karen Kaplan, and it’s Tuesday, July 6. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

It’s been three weeks since California reopened its economy. With each passing day, our lives inch closer to their pre-pandemic normal. The latest sign comes from Santa Monica, where pickup basketball games are back in Joslyn Park.

Sure, the players may be a little out of practice. They’re relying on knee and ankle braces to protect their joints while they become reacquainted with the proper footwork. Their jump shots aren’t automatic like they used to be.

But it’s not their level of basketball skill that’s important. It’s that they’re finally together on the court after a 15-month timeout.

“It’s our golf course,” Kirkland Lynch, an attorney who’s played at Joslyn Park for years, told my colleague Donovan X. Ramsey. “We get out there and talk shop — everything from investments to politics to sports, or just joking around. Those are our Saturday sessions where we debate and talk and, you know, congregate.”

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John Wall goes up for a rebound during a weekly game of pick-up basketball in Santa Monica's Joslyn Park.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Santa Monica closed its public basketball courts on March 12, 2020. When people showed up to play anyway, workers took the rims off the backboards.

“It felt so weird,” said Micah Akerson, the city’s principal community services supervisor. “It’s not something we like to do. We like to fill the facilities, but in this case, we had to do the opposite to keep everybody safe.”

Some of the regulars tried to move their game to courts in East L.A. or Highland Park. It wasn’t the same. In deference to pandemic safety, they mostly stuck to one-on-one games, or shot baskets on their own.

When COVID-19 vaccines were available, they became a hot topic on the players’ group chat. They discussed the safest way to resume their weekly game without putting anyone’s health at risk.

“It all came back together so quickly,” said Jermaine McMihelk, an asset manager from Compton who started playing at Joslyn Park about five years ago. “It went from this huge void to, once the vaccine rolled out and everybody was comfortable, we picked up like we never left.”

The key word there is “vaccine.” On the same day Ramsey’s story was published, my colleagues Rong-Gong Lin II and Luke Money reminded us that it’s still too soon to let our guard down.

Coronavirus cases have been falling for white, Latino and Asian Americans in Los Angeles County, but they’ve climbed among Black residents — the group least likely to be vaccinated, according to data from the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

Only 44% of Black Angelenos ages 16 and up have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. That compares with 54% of Latino, 61% of Native American, 65% of white and 75% of Asian American residents in that age group.

Health experts say it’s probably not a coincidence that the two-week coronavirus case rate for Black residents rose 18% between mid-May and mid-June while it declined 4% for Latino, 6% for white and 25% for Asian American residents. What’s more, the hospitalization rate rose 11% for Black residents while falling 29% for Latino, 37% for white and 12% for Asian American residents.

“What we’re seeing in L.A. is what we’ll see in other urban centers: The cases and the hospitalizations will rise among those who are unvaccinated,” said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, epidemiologist at UC San Francisco. “This can move actually very quickly to devastate the Black communities.”

It doesn’t have to. Just ask the hoops players at Joslyn Park.

By the numbers

California cases, deaths and vaccinations as of 6:10 p.m. Tuesday:

As of June 6, California had 3,796,082 confirmed coronavirus cases and 62,849 deaths.
(Los Angeles Times)

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

A more meaningful Independence Day

The Fourth of July isn’t usually a time for reflection — not like Memorial Day or Thanksgiving. But we’ve all come a very long way in the last year, so L.A. Times columnist Gustavo Arellano asked Southern Californians what this holiday meant to them. Their responses may give you a new perspective on freedom and independence.

When Dr. Jerry Abraham was a kid, Independence Day barely registered as a holiday. He felt fortunate if he got to celebrate with a hot dog, some ice cream, and a glimpse of fireworks. But since both his parents usually worked on the Fourth, there were plenty of years when he didn’t celebrate.

If he were still that kid, he’d have had plenty of company this weekend.

“I struggle knowing 600,000-plus Americans will not celebrate this July Fourth,” said Abraham, who now runs the COVID-19 vaccination program at Kedren Community Health Center in South L.A., in an interview before the holiday. “They are gone from this world because of the terrible pandemic that wreaked havoc.”

One of them is Dario Urbina, who was in the hospital last July 4 and died two days later.

His wife, Griselda Urbina, ignored that Independence Day, even though it’s usually one of her favorite holidays. “I didn’t have the spirit to celebrate,” she said.

This year, she and her four children — all of whom battled COVID-19 — visited Dario’s grave on the Fourth of July. After months of mourning, they held a small party to honor his life.

Griselda said her mindset changed in February.

“We’ve suffered a lot. We lost my husband,” she said. “What more can we lose? And I stopped feeling fear.

Griselda Urbina holds a necklace that belonged to her husband, Dario, who died of COVID-19.
Griselda Urbina with a necklace that belonged to her husband, Dario, who died last year of COVID-19.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Max Thayer was hospitalized with COVID-19 as well. He was luckier than Dario Urbina, and was able to go home after a two-month stay.

Now the 75-year-old Army veteran sees independence differently.

“No one is truly independent in the sense of our friends, our family, our lives [being] intertwined with other human beings,” said the Vietnam-era Army veteran. “I think that we all depend on each other.”

The pandemic cost Jamie Eagen her job as a law office manager. It was the first time in her life she’d been laid off.

The single mom is still looking for a new job, but that didn’t stop her from pitching in to rent a houseboat on Lake Powell with her family. Indeed, the pandemic has made her focus on the positive.

“It’s almost like having your worst nightmare come true and realizing that you’re OK,” she said. “It gives you a sense of freedom that you would not think it would give you.”

California’s vaccination progress

58.8% of Californians have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine and 50.8% are fully vaccinated.
(Los Angeles Times)
A map showing California's COVID-19 vaccination progress by county.
(Los Angeles Times)

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In other news ...

Here’s something our regular readers surely saw coming: The Delta variant is now California’s dominant coronavirus strain.

The Delta variant (which was first identified in India) surpassed the Alpha variant (the one that was first identified in the United Kingdom) sometime in June. But they’re still pretty close.

New data from the California Department of Public Health show that Delta accounted for 35.4% of the viral samples that were genetically sequenced in June. An additional 34.3% were Alpha and 19.7% were Gamma, the variant from Brazil. Only 1.9% of sequences samples turned out to be the Epsilon variant, the one that originated in California.

In May, the Alpha variant accounted for 58% of sequenced coronavirus samples, while the Delta variant made up just 5.6%.

As we’ve been saying, Delta spreads more than twice as readily as its predecessors.

Its rapid rise prompted L.A. County health officials to recommend that everyone wear protective masks in public indoor settings, even if they’re fully vaccinated. They say Delta deserves much of the blame for the recent increases in coronavirus infections and COVID-19 hospitalizations among people who aren’t vaccinated.

Nationwide, the Delta variant makes up about 25% of coronavirus samples that are genetically sequenced. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said she expects Delta to “eclipse” Alpha and take over the top spot in a matter of weeks.

The threat posed by Delta prompted President Biden to announce new steps to vaccinate more Americans who’ve been holding out on getting the shots.

One of those steps is to get more doses into the hands of primary care doctors, since polls show they’re trusted by Americans. Another is to deploy more mobile clinics in communities where vaccination rates remain low.

The administration is also focused on getting more teens vaccinated before the school year begins. After a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine — the only one in the U.S. currently authorized for use in people ages 12 to 17 — it takes five weeks to become fully immunized. In some parts of the country, kids only have about five weeks of summer break left.

Children younger than 12 don’t yet have the option of getting vaccinated. But experts have some good news for anxious parents: There’s no reason to panic.

Keri Althoff, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told my colleague Deborah Netburn that it’s reasonable to assume that the Delta variant is more transmissible in kids just like it is in adults. But even so, there’s no evidence that it’s more likely to make children seriously ill or increase their risk of developing the rare inflammatory disease called MIS-C.

“I’m not freaked out,” said Althoff, who has three kids under age 12.

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from readers who want to know: If I got the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, should I get a booster shot of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine?

When we answered this question in early March, the answer was no. Four months later, the answer hasn’t changed.

“There’s no real fundamental scientific reason to do that right now,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert.

Fauci pointed to a lack of clinical data showing that people who got the single-dose J&J vaccine are better off if they follow that up with a dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines.

Also lacking are clinical trial data showing that a booster dose would be safe, or what the side effects might be, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She echoed Fauci’s assessment that a booster isn’t necessary.

“We have no information to suggest that you need a second shot after J&J, even with the Delta variant,” Walensky said.

Johnson & Johnson said last week that its COVID-19 vaccine “generated strong, persistent activity against the rapidly spreading Delta variant and other highly prevalent [coronavirus] viral variants.”

And other experts noted that so-called breakthrough cases — in which a person develops COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated — are no more likely among people who got the J&J shot than for people who got the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines.

So, why the persistent questions about J&J’s possible shortcomings? Fauci offered one explanation: The other vaccines are in wider use around the world, so there’s much more data about their effectiveness.

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? Sign up for email updates, and 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.

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