Coronavirus Today: The great reopening

Good evening. I’m Deborah Netburn, a science and features writer at the Los Angeles Times, filling in for Thuc Nhi Nguyen for a few days. You may remember me from my previous stints with the newsletter — it’s nice to be back! It’s Monday, March 15, and here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

We’re back! Kind of!

For the first time in months, Los Angeles County residents can eat inside a restaurant, take an indoor yoga class and catch a film in an actual movie theater.

Remember those simple pleasures?

This modest progress is made possible by the county’s advancement from the purple tier, the strictest category in the state’s four-level coronavirus road map, to the more lenient red tier.

And L.A. County is not the only one moving a step closer to pre-pandemic life. A dozen other counties — Orange, San Bernardino, Contra Costa, Sonoma, Placer, Mendocino, San Benito, Tuolumne, Siskiyou, Amador, Colusa and Mono — also officially advanced over the weekend.

Those 12 counties, along with L.A., are home to 17.7 million Californians.

But don’t expect life to return to normal anytime soon. Restaurants and movie theaters can open at 25% capacity, and indoor gyms and dance and yoga studios are allowed just 10% of their capacity. Museums, zoos and aquariums can reopen indoor operations at 25% capacity. And starting April 1, amusement parks can reopen at 15% capacity, with additional modifications. Outdoor sporting events, with fans, and outdoor live performances also will be allowed to resume April 1. And LACMA announced it will also open April 1, with six new exhibitions.

While some people will likely hold off for a bit before taking advantage of these new opportunities, others have jumped right in.

Bob Knee, 72, found himself seated in a familiar booth at Canter’s delicatessen Monday, ordering sausage and eggs and feeling “normal again.” He said he’s been coming to the restaurant since he was 16.

“It’s wonderful,” he said of eating indoors.

The move from the purple tier to the red tier also means that in-person instruction for middle and high schoolers is allowed, although for students of the Los Angeles Unified School District, that won’t happen until late-April at the earliest. (More on that later.)

Also on Monday, millions more Californians became eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

The list now includes people who live or work in high-risk congregate residential settings, like homeless shelters and incarceration facilities, as well as public transit and airport employees. In L.A. County, the entire homeless population is eligible, regardless of shelter status.

People with certain underlying health conditions are also newly eligible to be vaccinated. That list includes people who have cancer; chronic kidney disease of Stage 4 or above; chronic pulmonary disease; Down syndrome; a compromised immune system from solid organ transplant; sickle cell disease; heart conditions such as heart failure, coronary artery disease and cardiomyopathies (excluding hypertension); severe obesity; Type 2 diabetes mellitus; or are pregnant.

With these additions, nearly half of all Californians qualify for vaccination. However, getting an appointment may be difficult for the next few weeks, as there is currently more demand than supply.

To streamline the process, vaccination sites will not require high-risk people to prove their eligibility. That may tempt some people who are not eligible to cheat. If that’s you: I understand the allure — it’s so easy, and you’ve waited so long for life to go back to normal. But try to remain strong.

“We certainly hope people won’t try to take advantage of the situation and will be honest in terms of presenting with legitimate chronic health conditions that are serious and/or disabilities that are significant,” said Dr. Paul Simon, chief science officer with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

President Biden said he believed every adult could be vaccinated by the end of May.

That means you.

While we’re trying to be patient, I’m wondering if you can help me with a story I’m working on. I’m curious to know how people who have not been vaccinated are managing any jealousy that may come up when they hear friends and family members gleefully announce that they have an appointment or are in the clear.

How do you respond to someone else’s good news? What do you do to cope? (Full disclosure: This is something I’ve been struggling with myself.) You can email me here with your responses. And thank you!

By the numbers

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

Across California

As you’ve likely heard, the Los Angeles Unified School District is planning to reopen for elementary school students in mid-April and for middle and high school students by the end of the month. Now for the next big question: If it opens, will they come?

Partial results of a parent survey begun last week by LAUSD show that among the 10% of families that have responded so far, 51% plan to send their kids back to in-person school, while 49% plan to stick with remote learning — almost an even split.

However, if you look at the numbers more closely, some nuance emerges. For instance, 62% of families with elementary school students favored a return, compared with 44% for middle schoolers and 33% for high schoolers.

The district also found that people in harder-hit areas were more reluctant to send children back, although this difference shows up primarily at the elementary level. For example, in Florence-Firestone/Watts, 43% of students would be returning. That area has a COVID-19 death rate of 279 residents per 100,000, according to data released by the district, and a vaccination rate of only 7%.

In West L.A., where there’s a much lower death rate and much higher vaccination rate, 77% of students would go back, including 88% of elementary students.

When elementary schools reopen, students will receive in-person instruction every day for half a day. Students will be able to stay on campus from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., providing essential child care for working parents.

For middle and high schools, however, students will essentially trade Zoom school from home for Zoom school at school. Students will be allowed on campus just two or three days a week. Once there, they will remain in one classroom all day, wear noise-canceling headphones, and will continue to interact with teachers through Zoom. For one hour a day, they will work with the teacher in their classroom on social-emotional learning that is not part of the core curriculum.

Union president Cecilia Myart-Cruz said this format would keep people safe — and avoid disrupting the complex schedules of middle and high school students.

“There will be stretch breaks so students will not feel like they are trapped all day,” Myart-Cruz said.

Would that be enough for you to send your kid back?

In other news, public health officials and advocates for those experiencing homelessness applauded a move by the L.A. County Department of Public Health to make the county’s entire homeless population eligible for vaccines starting today.

Earlier in the pandemic, researchers were surprised by the resilience of homeless people, who appeared to be contracting the coronavirus at relatively low rates. But last week, new research from UCLA epidemiologists found that nationally, homeless people who did contract the virus were 30% more likely to die of COVID-19 than those in the general population. In Los Angeles County, homeless COVID-19 patients were 50% more likely to die.

“If you think about the vaccine as a tool to help prevent severe illness and death, then you want to get it to people who are at higher risk of death,” said Dr. Heidi Behforouz, medical director for L.A. County’s Housing for Health program, which has been running the vaccine rollout for the homeless population.

Meanwhile, around the state, counties that have refused to sign on to the new COVID-19 vaccine program run by Blue Shield of California are expected to reach a separate agreement to end a stalemate that threatened to slow delivery of shots.

Blue Shield President Paul Markovich said Friday that counties were concerned about signing the distribution contract with a private company, which had been a requirement for all vaccine providers to continue receiving doses in California under the new program.

“They’re much more comfortable with an agreement with the state, which is fine by us as long as there’s agreement that they will participate in the performance management system that allows us to deliver on the performance in our contract,” Markovich said “It should be just fine.”

A map of California showing more counties in the second-most restrictive red tier, including L.A., Orange and San Bernardino.
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

Could former President Trump help America end the pandemic?

In a round of interviews on the Sunday morning news shows, Dr. Anthony Fauci lamented polling that found Trump supporters were more likely to refuse to be vaccinated and said he wished the former president would use his “incredible influence” to change their minds. That would be a “game changer,” he said.

“If he came out and said, ‘Go and get vaccinated. It’s really important for your health, the health of your family and the health of the country,’ it seems absolutely inevitable that the vast majority of people who are his close followers would listen to him,” Fauci told “Fox News Sunday.”

Trump has urged people to get vaccinated, including late last month at a conservative political gathering in Florida. But he did not appear in a pro-vaccine public service campaign that included former presidents Carter, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama. He also declined to be vaccinated on camera.

In Europe, a handful of countries have halted use of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine following reports that some recipients developed blood clots. The moves came despite the fact that there is no evidence that the shot was responsible.

Germany, France, Denmark and Ireland temporarily suspended their use of the vaccine, even as the European Medicines Agency and the World Health Organization say the data available do not suggest that the vaccine caused the clots, and people should continue to be immunized. (Officials in Thailand and Congo put a temporary hold on the vaccine as well.)

Authorities in the Netherlands — like those elsewhere — said their suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine was strictly precautionary.

“We must always err on the side of caution, which is why it is sensible to press the pause button now as a precaution,” said Hugo de Jonge, the Dutch health minister.

In response to the suspensions, AstraZeneca said it had carefully reviewed the data on 17 million people who received doses across Europe. It said there was “no evidence of an increased risk” of blood clots in any age group or gender in any country. Several other countries have continued using the vaccine.

And in Brazil, rumors and conspiracy theories are swirling regarding the whereabouts of Zé Gotinha, the mascot for Brazil’s national vaccination program.

Zé Gotinha, whose name translates roughly as “Joe Droplet” and who resembles an overgrown Casper the Friendly Ghost, was created in the 1980s to help the health ministry promote vaccination against the polio virus and put children at ease. Since then, he has made regular appearances to warn about the importance of preventing measles, tuberculosis, whooping cough, diphtheria and, most recently, COVID-19.

However, Gotinha has not been seen publicly since Dec. 16, when he appeared at a ceremony in Brasilia to launch the national COVID-19 vaccination program. “Where is our beloved Zé Gotinha?” former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said in a speech criticizing President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic.

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from readers who are wondering: How will we know when we have reached herd immunity?

Before answering that question, Julie Swann, an expert in healthcare systems at North Carolina State University, wants you to know that reaching herd immunity does not mean that nobody will ever be infected with COVID-19 again.

Herd immunity is generally defined as the point at which there is enough immunity among the general public that one infected person will infect no more than one other person, on average.

“It does not mean the risk has gone to zero,” she told me. “It means the virus can’t keep blowing up in the population.”

By that standard, it might seem like we’ve already reached herd immunity. Here in California, plummeting case numbers mean that each infected person is spreading the virus to fewer than one person, on average. However, keep in mind that powerful mitigation strategies remain in place: masking in public, distance protocols and schools and businesses either closed or operating at reduced capacity. If all those restrictions went away at once, the virus would certainly spike again, despite the fact that vaccinations are ramping up.

Even if the U.S. does reach herd immunity — with somewhere between 70% to 85% of the population either vaccinated or immune due to prior infection — it’s likely we’ll still see small outbreaks among the unprotected in churches, schools or other communities.

“The virus can easily find a few people in a network like that to infect,” she said.

Swann said that when we get to the point at which all adults have some level of protection, the coronavirus would function like the influenza virus. Even if people did get it, they would become less sick because they’d have some degree of immunity. But that could take years.

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? Keep in mind that supplies are limited, and getting one can be a challenge. Sign up for email updates, check your eligibility and, if you’re eligible, 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.

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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