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Newsletter: A dangerous road to ‘herd immunity’

San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin State Prison, where COVID-19 has spread unchecked.
(Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

A COVID-19 outbreak at California’s oldest prison shows the high human costs of trying to achieve “herd immunity” without a vaccine.

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A Dangerous Road to ‘Herd Immunity’

For critics of aggressive stay-at-home orders, the solution seems clear: Reopen the economy and enough people will eventually become infected by the novel coronavirus to achieve “herd immunity” even before a vaccine is available.

The idea is that eventually, a sufficient percentage of the population will have survived COVID-19 and become immune, which in turn protects the rest of the uninfected population by interrupting the spread of the virus.

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But the disastrous situation unfolding at San Quentin State Prison over the last two months has become the latest of several cautionary tales that show how any effort to achieve herd immunity before a vaccine is available would come with enormous costs in terms of illness and death.

COVID-19 spread unchecked across California’s oldest prison in ways that stunned public health experts, despite efforts to control the disease. As of Monday, there had been more than 2,200 cases and 25 deaths, among a population of more than 3,260 people. On Sunday, a guard became one of the latest to die.

San Quentin’s death toll translates to a mortality rate of about 767 people dying out of every 100,000 persons. If that same rate occurred across California, that would translate to 300,000 deaths statewide — many times larger than California’s cumulative death toll of more than 10,400. Nationally, that would be equivalent to 2.5 million deaths; the current cumulative U.S. death toll is more than 163,000.

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Trying to Calm the Storm

Responding to one of California’s biggest setbacks since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom said his administration has fixed a public health computer database failure that distorted test results across the state and raised doubts about actions taken to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Newsom faced reporters for the first time since he touted the inaccurate data as a positive sign of fewer infections; a day later the glitches became public. The governor said he was unaware of the problem, even though state health officials had warned counties about data issues days earlier.

On Sunday, the state announced the abrupt departure of Dr. Sonia Angell, the director of the California Department of Public Health, the agency in charge of collecting the electronic test results. Newsom declined to say whether he asked Angell to resign and sidestepped a question about her leadership of the agency during the pandemic. He said he felt it was appropriate to accept her resignation.

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Is It a Model or a Mistake?

As a new school year dawns, many California students are preparing for a remote fall semester. Many, but not all: In Grass Valley, Mount St. Mary’s Academy is opening its doors with crisp uniforms, sharp pencils and classes five days a week, plus a digital thermometer.

The school is located in Nevada County, which is not on the state’s coronavirus watchlist, giving it more flexibility. But its administrators also believe they can open safely, with a small student body they say is “nimble” enough to try. It’s an experiment administrators hope will provide a model for other schools like it, said Lincoln Snyder, superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento.

Some see Mount St. Mary’s as engaging in arrogant foolishness, while others see it providing an essential service. “Obviously, we are all learning as we go,” Snyder said.

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More Top Coronavirus Headlines

— Coronavirus cases among children and teenagers are surging in California, up 150% last month, a rate that outpaces COVID-19 cases overall and establishes minors as a small but growing share of the state’s COVID-19 cases. Nationwide, infections among children grew 40% in the last half of July, according to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Assn., bringing the total number of child infections to 8.8% of all U.S. cases.

— Following a statewide trend, the number of those hospitalized with COVID-19 in the Inland Empire has dipped after record-setting data were reported last month.

Latino workers are bearing the brunt of a second wave of COVID-19 in ritzy Marin County.

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— How safe is it for young adults to be at college during a pandemic? There are no easy answers.

For more, sign up for Coronavirus Today, a special edition of The Times’ Health and Science newsletter.

The Toll of an LAPD Scandal

Early on a Thursday morning in February, two men in suits rapped on the door of the South Los Angeles apartment that Gadseel Quiñonez shares with his little brother, Jose.

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The men were from the Los Angeles Police Department’s Professional Standards Bureau — the cops who police the cops. They wanted to know whether the two brothers belonged to any gangs. No, Gadseel told them. They asked whether they could take pictures of his tattoos. Sure, he said. He had nothing to hide.

Months later, three LAPD officers were charged with falsifying dozens of gang records, and the reason for the early morning visit became clear: The Quiñonez brothers had been falsely identified as members of MS-13, a street gang notorious for macabre killings, according to a complaint filed by county prosecutors.

They are among dozens of people who county prosecutors say were falsely labeled as gang members or associates by three officers with the LAPD’s elite Metropolitan Division.

FROM THE ARCHIVES

In the early 1940s, there were few places Frank Sinatra could go without drawing attention to himself. He was so popular among teenage girls, there was a term coined for the intense fan reaction: “Sinatramania.” On Aug. 11, 1943, Sinatra arrived in Los Angeles for a performance at the Hollywood Bowl and an appearance in a movie. According to The Times, at least 2,000 fans greeted him at the train station in Pasadena, hoping to catch a glimpse of him or even an autograph.

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Judging by The Times’ photos, at least a few were successful.

Frank Sinatra retreats to a ladder
Aug. 11, 1943: Frank Sinatra retreats to a ladder for refuge as autograph hounds besiege him following his arrival by train in Pasadena. Sinatra was in town for a performance at the Hollywood Bowl and work on an RKO movie.
(Los Angeles Times)

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CALIFORNIA

— A “horrible sequence of mistakes” by contractors and consultants on the California bullet train venture caused support cables to fail on a massive bridge, triggering an order to stop work and further delays for a project already years behind schedule.

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— A swarm of small earthquakes under the Salton Sea is being closely monitored as to whether it might raise the chance of a much larger event on the San Andreas fault.

— Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies detained three teenagers at gunpoint in Santa Clarita last week after bystanders called 911 to report that the teens were being attacked by a man with a knife, an attorney for one of the teen’s families said. Two of the teens were Black.

— A Silver Lake memorial protesting police brutality must come down by Aug. 15, according to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

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NATION-WORLD

— GOP operatives want Kanye West on the presidential ballot. Will it really matter?

— A Secret Service officer shot and wounded a man outside the White House grounds on Monday, officials said, although it wasn’t clear whether the individual had sought to attack the president.

— Police say hundreds of people went to downtown Chicago after a police shooting on the city’s South Side, with vandals smashing the windows of dozens of businesses and taking merchandise and anything else they could carry.

Lebanon’s beleaguered prime minister and the rest of his Cabinet have resigned after a catastrophic explosion in Beirut’s port leveled large areas of the capital last week.

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— Election officials in Belarus said that President Alexander Lukashenko — often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator” — had won his sixth consecutive term, taking more than 80% of the vote amid protests.

HOLLYWOOD AND THE ARTS

WarnerMedia began slashing its workforce, laying off at least 600 employees as movie theater shutdowns and streaming competition ravage its film and TV business. The bulk of the job cuts came from the legendary Warner Bros. studio in Burbank.

— On “Wynonna Earp,” Melanie Scrofano has faced demons, family drama, complicated romantic entanglements and even a mysterious being in the Garden of Eden. And now: directing.

— This “black-ish” episode was shelved by Disney for years until it made its way to Hulu. Here’s why it still works.

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Jan Steward, the prolific artist, photographer and graphic designer who cowrote a book with Corita Kent and created album covers for George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, has died at 91.

BUSINESS

— As rivals try to poach its creators and audience, TikTok has announced plans to pay a group of influencers as much as six figures to keep creating content for the app.

— It was only supposed to be a brief pop-up — 36 bouquets of flowers for Mother’s Day. It was so successful, Amorette Brooms has pivoted her Queen Boutique from accessories to house plants.

SPORTS

— If plans to salvage fall college football collapse this week, with the season either pushed to the spring or canceled entirely, it won’t mark the end of two UCLA players’ efforts to enhance what they see as a game on a different sort of brink.

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— Beyond basketball, life in the NBA’s anti-coronavirus “bubble” tests players in many ways.

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OPINION

— Trump is considering accepting the Republican Party’s nomination for reelection from the “great battlefield” at Gettysburg. The site of one of the most cataclysmic confrontations in our nation’s history could not be a more inappropriate venue, writes Sewell Chan, editor of the editorial pages.

— The most recent Supreme Court term was a refreshing reproach to the idea that the justices are simply politicians in black robes. But perhaps there’s more to be done: Consider limiting the justices’ terms, writes The Times’ editorial board.

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WHAT OUR EDITORS ARE READING

— There’s washing your hands and keeping your distance. And then there’s “hygiene theater”over-the-top scrubbing of everything and anything despite what we know about how and where the virus is spreading. (The Atlantic)

— How Aztecs recorded history. (Aeon)

ONLY IN L.A.

James Hong’s lengthy résumé includes memorable roles in “Chinatown,” “Blade Runner,” “Big Trouble in Little China,” “Wayne’s World 2" and “Seinfeld” as well as voice roles in “Kung Fu Panda,” “Mulan” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” So what will it take get a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame? Daniel Dae Kim has raised the money for Hong’s name to be so immortalized, but that’s just the first step.

Comments or ideas? Email us at headlines@latimes.com.


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