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Coronavirus Today: Olympics 1, coronavirus 0

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Good evening. I’m Karen Kaplan, and it’s Tuesday, Feb. 22. Here’s the latest on what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

Nathan Chen went head-to-head against figure skating legend Yuzuru Hanyu and came away with a gold medal. So did the Canadian women’s ice hockey team, defeating their rivals from the U.S. for the fourth time in six tries. Freestyle skier Eileen Gu dominated the field in the halfpipe competition, adding to gold and silver medals from two earlier events.

But perhaps the most significant victory at the Beijing Olympics was the one against the coronavirus.

China’s extreme measures to keep the Winter Games virus-free seem to have worked. By the time the torch was extinguished at the closing ceremony on Sunday, the number of new infections had dwindled to zero, my colleague Nathan Fenno reports.

Let’s pause for a moment to appreciate this achievement. All 13,600 Olympics-related visitors were tested at the airport when they landed in China. An additional 1.7 million tests were administered to athletes and other residents of the Beijing fortress known as the “closed loop” as the Games went on. A total of 437 infections were detected over a four-week period, though by the final weekend, all tests were coming back negative.

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“It was one of the safest places on the planet, if not the safest place on the planet,” said Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee.

Olympics 1, coronavirus 0.

Like so many victories on the snow and ice, this one didn’t come easy. Officials created an elaborate parallel universe within Beijing that was surrounded by temporary walls, police and surveillance cameras. When it was time to head to a sporting venue, the only way to get there was on an official transport bus or a high-speed train.

Not even food deliveries could make it into the loop. And inside, robots prepared pork buns, French fries and alcoholic beverages, delivering meals that were never touched by human hands.

Olympic organizers gave themselves a head start by requiring everyone to be fully vaccinated or else come early to serve a three-week quarantine. The testing regimen in the loop was no joke — a jumbo cotton swab was used to scrape the back of the throat every single day. Infrared stations were set up to measure people’s body temperature, and everyone was required to report daily health information on an app.

Disinfectant was ubiquitous, sprayed by a fleet of autonomous robots in addition to some humans. High-quality masks were a must at all times; other robots helped enforce this rule by looking around for scofflaws and and asking them to cover up.

Robot sprays disinfectant in a hallway of the Crown Plaza hotel in Beijing.
A robot sprays disinfectant in a hallway of the Crown Plaza hotel in Beijing.
(Gary Ambrose / For The Times)

All these precautions made the Tokyo Olympics seem lax by comparison. During the Summer Games, the quarantine conditions weren’t nearly as strict, the coronavirus tests involved spitting into a vial instead of trying hard not to gag, and athletes were the only ones subjected to daily tests (all others were tested once every three days).

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Even with the Beijing protocols in place, the virus managed to get through. But positive tests didn’t spark outbreaks, and no competitions were affected by COVID-19.

Marissa Baker, an assistant professor at the University of Washington who has studied workplace outbreaks, was impressed by the results.

“I am pleasantly surprised by the low number of cases — not because I wouldn’t expect the controls to work — they do — but because even in closed loops or ‘bubble’ one person not following protocols to a T can result in the loop/bubble being broken,” she said. “It does seem like a testament to not only the controls being strong, but also everyone being conscientious about following them in order to keep each other safe.”

Could strategies like these make everyday life more safe?

Not really, said Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory University. If you want to contain the coronavirus, the most important things to do are get people vaccinated, isolate infected people quickly and keep the virus out of the air. A lot of the precautions taken in Beijing amounted to little more than hygiene theater, he said.

“The closed loop certainly doesn’t hurt as it limits the opportunities for the virus to be introduced, but it’s not feasible in the vast majority of circumstances,” Binney said.

Besides, living in a confined space presents its own challenges, according to this firsthand account from my colleague David Wharton:

Researchers have found that captivity alters the natural instincts of wild animals and lately I’ve come to suspect the same might be true for Olympic journalists.

Frustration and grinding of teeth are common to both groups. So are repetitive, often destructive behaviors which, in our case, manifest in constantly perusing the office snack table, grabbing another piece of candy, a few crackers, anything to get through deadline.

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One difference: Zoo animals channel anxiety through excessive over-grooming, but we have slipped the opposite direction, bathing irregularly, wearing the same jeans for days on end.

By the numbers

California cases and deaths as of 4:58 p.m. on Tuesday:

As of Feb. 22, California had recorded 8,907,519 coronavirus infections and 83,523 COVID-19 deaths.

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

Who’s left behind when safety rules are scrapped?

Harry Styles. Billie Eilish. Carrie Underwood. These are some of the artists who’ll be headlining the Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals in Indio a few weeks from now.

Some ticket holders fear they’ll be joined by another big name: the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

There are two reasons for their concern. First, either they or someone they live with is immunocompromised. And second, both festivals have opted to drop all COVID-19 safety protocols.

“I was and still am frustrated,” Nicole H., an immunocompromised music fan from Cleveland who bought her ticket to Coachella when safety measures were still in place, told my colleague August Brown. “I’ve personally taken steps to mitigate my risk, but they’ve made it much more difficult to stay safe now.”

The decision was made by Goldenvoice, the concert promoter that organizes both festivals. Stagecoach announced the change on its Twitter and Instagram accounts: “As we prepare to spend an incredible weekend in the desert together we are announcing that there will be no vaccination, testing or masking requirements at Stagecoach 2022, in accordance with local guidelines.”

Coachella drew less attention to the matter, simply updating the rules in the health, safety and rules section of its website.

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That puts the two festivals at odds with many of their peers.

South by Southwest, which gets underway next month in Austin, Texas, requires attendees to present proof that they’re fully vaccinated or follow a testing regimen designed in accordance with local public health rules. The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., hasn’t ruled out the possibility that vaccines, negative test results and masks will be required when it comes around in June.

Coachella and Stagecoach struck some as unlikely candidates to lead the way into a precaution-free future. It’s not because they’re happening in blue California so much as that Goldenvoice’s parent company, AEG Presents, was one of the first concert promoters to implement a vaccine mandate in August.

“We have come to the conclusion that, as a market leader, it was up to us to take a real stand on vaccination status,” Jay Marciano, the chief executive of AEG Presents, said at the time. “We realize that some people might look at this as a dramatic step, but it’s the right one.”

Representatives for AEG and Goldenvoice either declined or did not respond to requests to discuss the policy change. But Randy Phillips, the former chief executive of AEG Presents, said enforcing COVID-19 rules at a concert or festival was far from trivial.

“At the end of the day, it’s so hard to enforce these mandates and restrictions, especially at an event as spread-out as Coachella,” he said. “Stagecoach gets around 75,000 fans a day, and while you shouldn’t generalize, country music fans would be probably the least likely to follow mandates historically.”

Even so, Phillips said, if he were still running AEG, he’d probably keep the vaccine mandate in place for now.

(Interestingly, two other Southern California festivals put on by AEG — Cruel World and Just Like Heaven — still have safety protocols in place.)

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Although it’s perfectly legal for Coachella and Stagecoach to drop their COVID-19 rules, the public health department in Riverside County said its officials “strongly recommend those who take part should be vaccinated and wear a mask.”

That might not be enough to persuade Will Davis to attend Coachella this year, even though he already has his ticket. The Costa Mesa resident hasn’t missed a festival since 2009, but he’s nervous about the lack of precautions this time around. Even though he’s healthy, fully vaccinated and boosted, his wife is immunocompromised and pregnant.

“Their decisions around this year’s fest seem baffling to me,” Davis said. “Why remove all the very standard COVID safeguards?”

Taylor, a 28-year-old ticket holder from Southern California, was perplexed as well.

“It’s disappointing that they are choosing not to be leaders and take all necessary and completely doable steps, to not only protect the Coachella community, but also the surrounding desert communities of working class and Hispanic residents,” said Taylor, who asked not to use their last name. “I understand things are getting better, but the pandemic isn’t over yet.”

California’s vaccination progress

As of Feb. 22, 78.2% of Californians are at least partially vaccinated and 70.5% are fully vaccinated.
A map showing California's vaccination progress by county as of Feb. 22, 2022.

See the latest on California’s vaccination progress with our tracker.

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In other news ...

The World Health Organization celebrated a modest victory Tuesday, announcing that the number of new COVID-19 deaths around the world fell last week for the first time since early January. The total 67,000 deaths reported to the health agency was 8% lower than in the previous week. In addition, the 12 million new coronavirus cases were 21% lower than in the previous week, marking the third straight week of declines.

Los Angeles’ response to the pandemic was “uncoordinated and inefficient” because Mayor Eric Garcetti and his team did not include other city departments when making decisions, according to an early draft of a report by an independent consulting firm.

Garcetti “acted quickly and decisively on many fronts, often with innovative initiatives to help protect the city and its people,” the report said. At the same time, the city’s Emergency Management Department was leading a parallel operation that also won praise in the 216-page draft report by CPARS Consulting.

The EMD was tasked with running the pandemic response and didn’t anticipate that Garcetti would take a lead role, even though he was within his rights to do so. “When the mayor and his office assumed that role for the COVID-19 pandemic, not surprisingly, the emergency operation was uncoordinated and inefficient,” the draft found.

For example, when Garcetti announced new policies and programs during nightly television briefings, relevant city departments were often left in the dark. The confusion got worse after Garcetti hired Boston Consulting Group to help him navigate the crisis.

In another critique, the report noted that Garcetti didn’t thank EMD employees or visit the emergency operations center often enough, leading to “low morale, a perceived lack of trust (by the mayor in them), rumors and misinformation.” Morale did get a boost from L.A. Police Department Chief Michel Moore, who gave inspiring speeches at the center.

The draft of the report covers the city’s response through April 2021. An updated version will be finished by the middle of the year.

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While we’re on the topic of inelegant pandemic responses, let’s turn our attention to Canada. Police in Ottawa have ended the weeks-long occupation by truckers opposed to vaccine mandates and other COVID-19 rules. All told, 191 people were arrested and 79 vehicles were towed, making it the biggest police operation in the nation’s history.

The streets around the Canadian Parliament are quiet again. But just to be safe, lawmakers in the House of Commons voted Monday night to extend the emergency powers that police would need if the protesters decided to try again. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau argued that the powers were still necessary, noting that some truckers near Ottawa might be planning to return. Canada’s public safety minister added that protesters tried to block a border crossing in British Columbia over the weekend.

The vote to extend emergency powers was backed by the opposition New Democratic Party. “This is an attack on our democracy,” said party leader Jagmeet Singh. “The organizers clearly have a goal in mind to undermine democracy. That’s something we can’t allow to continue.”

Things aren’t going as smoothly in New Zealand, where a convoy of protesters is still camped outside the parliament building in Wellington. One protester nearly hit officers when he drove a car toward a police line. Other demonstrators sprayed police with a stinging substance or lobbed human feces their way.

Police Assistant Commissioner Richard Chambers said demonstrators would be dealt with assertively. “Our focus remains on opening the roads up to Wellingtonians and doing our absolute best to restore peaceful protest,” he said. “The behavior of a certain group within the protest community is absolutely disgraceful.”

In nearby Australia, the final travel restrictions for fully vaccinated international travelers have been lifted, allowing separated families to reunite for the first time since the country closed its borders to tourists in March 2020. The first visitors touched down early Monday morning, arriving on a Qantas flight from Los Angeles.

Moving north to Hong Kong, an Omicron-driven outbreak prompted the government to order coronavirus testing for the entire population. All residents will be tested three times in March in an effort to contain the city’s worst outbreak since the pandemic began.

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The surge there started at the beginning of the year and has caused nearly 54,000 infections and 145 COVID-19 deaths. With about 5,000 new cases being reported each day, the healthcare system could become overwhelmed. Hong Kong continues to follow China’s example of aiming to stamp out outbreaks, though Chief Executive Carrie Lam said a lockdown of the city was “not realistic.”

The United Kingdom is going in the other direction. Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed that the British plan for “living with COVID” means that people who are infected won’t be legally required to isolate themselves, and that coronavirus testing will be scaled back. Instead, he said, people in the U.K. will “protect ourselves without restricting our freedoms.”

Johnson’s Conservative government had already dropped vaccine mandates for venues and mask mandates for most places in England except for hospitals. (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are opening up more slowly.)

Some scientists who advise the British government warned that the “living with COVID” strategy could lead to yet another surge and leave the country more vulnerable to more virulent strains. As if to prove their point, Buckingham Palace announced Sunday that 95-year-old Queen Elizabeth II had come down with COVID-19 and was experiencing mild, cold-like symptoms.

And if that doesn’t convince you that Omicron is sneaky, how about this: U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, his physician wife and their two young children all have COVID-19.

The first member of the family to test positive was the couple’s 4-year-old daughter, who is too young to be vaccinated. She had a fever and was congested and hoarse from coughing. Her 5-year-old brother, who is vaccinated and boosted, had a low-grade fever and runny nose.

Murthy and his wife, Dr. Alice Chen, are up to date on their vaccinations and experienced mild symptoms. She had a headache and fatigue, while he had chills, aches and a sore throat.

“Many people assume you must have been careless to get sick,” Murthy wrote on Twitter. “Our safety measures reduce risk but they can’t eliminate risk. Nothing can.”

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from readers who want to know: How many times can I reuse my N95 or KN95 mask?

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It’s not really a matter of how many times you wear it. What really matters is how long it’s been on your face.

If you have your mask on all day at school or at work, it won’t last as long as if you wear it for a few minutes at a time to pick up milk at Trader Joe’s or drop off a package at the post office.

Every time you take a breath, particles accumulate on the mask, according to Caltech aerosol researcher Richard Flagan. The more breaths you take, the more particles get trapped and the more difficult it can be to breathe.

Another thing to watch out for is the elastic bands that go around your head or ears. If they’re too stretched out, the mask won’t fit snugly to your face and it won’t do its job. Also, if your mask gets dirty or wet, its performance will suffer.

Once any of these problems arises, it’s time for the mask to be tossed. Unlike cloth masks, N95s and KN95s can’t be washed and reused.

Generally speaking, Flagan recommends replacing an N95 after two or three days. To give you an idea of a mask’s maximum lifespan, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say healthcare workers can reuse an N95 up to five times when shortages are severe.

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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? Here’s where to go: 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

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 a test? Testing in California is free, and you can find a site online or call (833) 422-4255.

Americans are hurting in various ways. We have advice for helping kids cope, as well as resources for people experiencing domestic abuse.

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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