Good evening. I’m Melody Petersen, and it’s Wednesday, April 21. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.
After a devastating fall and winter surge that filled hospital intensive care units with COVID-19 patients and forced funeral homes to turn away grieving families, California’s coronavirus case rate is now the lowest in the continental U.S.
The state’s latest seven-day rate of new cases — 40.3 per 100,000 people — is dramatically lower than the nationwide rate of 135.3 per 100,000. Only Hawaii’s case rate of 39.1 per 100,000 is lower than California’s, writes my colleague Luke Money.
California has avoided the recent increases seen in other parts of the country. The state with the highest seven-day case rate is Michigan, at 483 cases per 100,000 people, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Other states topping that distressing leader board are New Jersey (with 269.7 cases per 100,000 people), Delaware (264.1), Pennsylvania (248.5) and Minnesota (238.4). Among larger states, the comparable rates over the same time period were 201.1 per 100,000 in Florida and 65.9 per 100,000 in Texas.
California’s headway against the coronavirus is being reflected in the gradual reopening of its economy, as public health officials continue to lift more restrictions. But public health officials continue to warn the state’s progress could reverse, pointing to the new surges in Michigan and some other states.
“Every member of our community plays an important role in helping us achieve and continue to enjoy the benefits of loosening restrictions,” said Dr. Henning Ansorg, the health officer for Santa Barbara County, which joined the state’s second-most lenient orange tier this week. “We must continue to be mindful of safety practices including wearing masks, physically distancing, washing hands and getting vaccinated as soon as possible.”
Over the last week, California has reported an average of 2,320 new cases per day — down 13% from two weeks ago, according to data compiled by The Times.
That’s a far cry from last winter, when California’s average peaked at more than 40,000 new cases per day.
On Tuesday, 1,774 coronavirus-positive Californians were hospitalized statewide, with 437 in intensive care. Those numbers remain among the lowest the state has seen since last spring.
As of this week, 38 of California’s 58 counties have reached the orange tier, and three have entered the final, most-lenient yellow tier. None remains in the strictest purple tier.
Now the challenge is to keep it that way.
“In order for continued decline in transmission of COVID-19, we will need to remain vigilant and continue to take precautions in the weeks ahead, allowing us time to vaccinate more people,” said Barbara Ferrer, the L.A. County public health director.
By the numbers
Track California’s coronavirus spread and vaccination efforts — including the latest numbers and how they break down — with our graphics.
Just when federal help seemed imminent for L.A.’s long-suffering music venues, another disaster hit.
On April 8, a federal website, through which clubs were expecting to apply for grants needed to save their venues, crashed. It’s been down ever since, leaving venue owners angry and bewildered, reports Times staff writer August Brown.
“It felt like a horror film where everyone’s running to the door, getting picked off one by one,” said Kora Peterson, the concert director at the independent folk venue McCabe’s in Santa Monica. “It was salvation we were so desperately hoping for, and it just got pulled out from under us.”
The bungled rollout of the $16-billion Shuttered Venue Operators Grant was the latest gut punch in a yearlong saga to get relief to the venues.
Venue owners are still trying to sort out what they can do after the L.A. County Department of Public Health said last week that indoor concerts could begin again — but only under strict new rules.
The rules sharply limit capacity depending on venue size and whether the shows ask attendees for proof of vaccination or recent negative tests. They also require separate sections for people who are eating and drinking, and for vaccinated and non-vaccinated guests. Outdoor venues like the Greek Theatre and Hollywood Bowl are resuming shows with looser restrictions.
While any movement to get back to business is welcome, some smaller operators say the requirements make it impossible for all but the biggest arenas to produce events. They say the rules also seem to allow more leeway for restaurants and bars than for venues with music performances.
“So as soon as someone walks onstage to play flamenco guitar, then it’s 35% capacity, and you can’t eat or drink at your table, and you need negative tests at the door and to separate un-vaccinated people, and move everyone 12 feet from the stage? It’s beyond prohibitive,” said the owner of an independent L.A. music venue. “Arenas are the only places that can make money like this, and they’ll survive no matter what.”
L.A. County’s push to inoculate hard-to-reach populations is continuing with two new vaccination clinics at public transit locations in the Antelope Valley, with no appointments required.
The county’s Public Health Department partnered with Metrolink to launch the clinics at the Palmdale and Lancaster Metrolink stations. Each site can administer up to 250 free vaccine doses a day and will operate from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Appointments are available through RemediaCare, but they are not needed.
For months, L.A. County has been working to address inequities plaguing its vaccine administration. Officials have launched mobile clinics and grass-roots campaigns to overcome the language, transportation and technology barriers that have stood between many vulnerable residents and their doses.
Lancaster and Palmdale are among the least-vaccinated areas of the county. Fewer than 27% of residents 16 and older in Lancaster and fewer than 29% in Palmdale have received at least one dose, according to biweekly county data from April 9. Those numbers are a stark contrast to places like Beverly Hills, Playa Vista and the Pacific Palisades, where more than 50% of residents have gotten at least one dose.
Both Antelope Valley cities have high populations of Black and Latino residents, who have been underrepresented in vaccination efforts.
Now it’s time for some trash talk. The pandemic has flooded landfills with plastic waste such as disposable utensils and single-use food containers as more people pick up meals and dine at home.
In an effort to reduce that garbage and give restaurants a financial boost, the L.A. City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved an ordinance to make disposable items such as utensils and napkins available at restaurants only when requested by customers.
The ordinance is subject to Mayor Eric Garcetti’s approval and would go into effect for food and beverage facilities with more than 26 employees on Nov. 15. It would be extended to all food and beverage facilities on April 22, 2022.
The motion to request the ordinance was introduced by Councilmen Paul Koretz and Paul Krekorian. Koretz previously called the switch to on-request-only utensils an “easy, commonsense requirement that we hope will help restaurants save money, help the city save money from unnecessary trash cleanups in our neighborhoods and help stop piling unused stuff in our already teeming landfills.”
California restaurants that have already switched to by-request utensils have saved $3,000 to $21,000 per year, he added.
The ordinance is similar to the city’s straws-on-request law that went into effect in 2019. That law bans all L.A. restaurants from automatically giving customers plastic straws.
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
U.S. regulators say a Baltimore factory contracted to make Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine was dirty, didn’t follow proper manufacturing procedures and had poorly trained staff, resulting in contamination of material that was going to be put in the shots.
Those findings were in a 13-page report released by the Food and Drug Administration, which detailed its recent inspection of the now-idle plant operated by Emergent Biosciences. Nothing made at the plant has been distributed yet.
Agency inspectors said a batch of the bulk drug substance for J&J’s single-shot vaccine had been contaminated with material that the factory had used to make vaccines for another of its clients, AstraZeneca. That batch, reportedly enough to make about 15 million J&J vaccine doses, had to be thrown out.
Other problems cited in the inspection report include peeling paint, black and brown residue on floors and walls, inadequate cleaning and employees not following procedures to prevent contamination. Both Emergent and J&J said they are working to fix the problems as quickly as possible.
At the moment, use of the J&J vaccine is on hold in the U.S. as government health officials investigate its connection to very rare blood clots. The nearly 8 million doses of J&J vaccine that had been administered in the U.S. came from Europe.
In other vaccine news, President Biden announced new employer tax credits and other steps to encourage hesitant Americans to get a COVID-19 shot as his administration tries to overcome diminishing demand.
More than 50% of adults are at least partially vaccinated and roughly 28 million doses are being delivered each week. In much of the country, demand is still eclipsing supply. But in a White House speech on Wednesday, Biden acknowledged entering a “new phase” in the federal vaccination effort.
Over the last week, the pace of inoculation in the U.S. has slowed slightly. That is partly because of disruptions from the “pause” in administering the J&J shot — but it also reflects softening interest for vaccines in some places.
Biden said small businesses could get a tax credit to provide paid leave for those getting vaccinated or potentially needing to take time off to recover from side effects. The credit, paid for through the $1.9-trillion virus relief package passed last month, would be worth up to $511 per day per employee for businesses with fewer than 500 workers.
“We’re calling on every employer, large and small, in every state: Give employees the time off they need with pay to get vaccinated,” Biden said.
Also on Wednesday, new research was published that bolsters evidence that COVID-19 vaccines are safe for pregnant women.
The preliminary results from the study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are based on reports from more than 35,000 U.S. women who received either the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech shots while pregnant. Their rates of miscarriage, premature births and other complications were comparable to those observed in published reports on pregnant women before the pandemic.
A representative from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said that the report was promising but that longer-term follow-up is needed. That group has said previously that COVID-19 vaccination should be available to pregnant women and to those who are breastfeeding.
Separately, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, another expert group, this week endorsed vaccination during pregnancy, based on evidence it has been evaluating for over a year.
“Everyone, including pregnant women and those seeking to become pregnant, should get a COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccines are safe and effective,” the society said in a statement.
Your questions answered
Today’s question comes from readers who want to know: How long will the COVID-19 vaccine protect me?
The answer is as simple as it is unsatisfying: No one knows.
The reason for the uncertainty is that the vaccines simply haven’t been around long enough for researchers to figure out when — or even if — their protection will wear off, my colleague Karen Kaplan explains.
Some of the people who participated in clinical trials of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have been fully vaccinated for about six months now. The latest data suggest their immune systems are just as capable of fighting off COVID-19 as the immune systems of people who got their shots more recently.
In addition, blood tests of 33 people who participated in the first phase of Moderna’s clinical trial showed that coronavirus antibodies remained prevalent six months after they received their second shot.
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