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California COVID-19 Plunges to New Lows, Fueling Hope Grand Reopening Won’t Bring Another Flare

California will fully reopen its economy next Tuesday under remarkably favorable conditions, with the risk of COVID-19 rapidly declining and new cases reported to the lowest levels in 14 months.

The state has recorded one of the lowest coronavirus infection rates in the country for several months, a distinction that continues despite the end of many restrictions and the rise of new variants. The number and rapid rollout of vaccinations has given public health officials even more confidence that life can return to semblance of normal without the horrific surges that have thwarted California’s two previous attempts to reopen.

California has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, with 56% of residents of all ages – and 71% of adults – having received at least one dose of the vaccine. Thirteen states now have at least 70% of their adults at least partially vaccinated, hitting a target set by President Biden weeks ahead of the July 4 target.

This vaccine rollout, especially in more populous areas of California, has helped tame COVID-19 and curb transmission. The continued immunity of many who survived COVID-19 during the devastating outbreaks of the past 15 months is also a factor, particularly in Los Angeles County.

At its peak in January, the state was reporting 45,000 cases of coronavirus per day. Now California is reporting on average less than 1,000 new coronaviruses per day over the past seven-day period, according to data compiled by The Times.

The last time the number of cases was this low was on March 31, 2020 – when the pandemic was just starting to come to life and testing was so limited that many infections likely went undetected.

This is not the case this time around. California’s latest seven-day average of 990 new coronavirus cases per day comes as about 129,000 tests were performed daily during the same period, according to data from The Times. In late spring 2020, the first time reliable data was available, there were only about 50,000 tests performed daily.

COVID-19-related hospitalizations are now at the lowest levels since California began systematically tracking this statistic on March 30, 2020, when 1,617 people with COVID-19 were hospitalized. As of Wednesday, there were 1,001 people with COVID-19 in hospitals in California, the most recent data available; this is down 95% from the peak of nearly 22,000 hospitalized in early January.

An average of 32 COVID-19 deaths over the past week are now reported daily, the lowest number since April 4, 2020. At its peak, California was reporting 549 COVID-19 deaths per day on a daily basis. weekly period.

“Right now California is doing very well when it comes to COVID,” said Dr. Tomás Aragón, state public health official and director of the California Department of Public Health this week.

This does not mean that there is no risk of future epidemics, especially since 44% of Californians have still not been vaccinated yet, even partially. Although officials and experts recognize that removing some of the remaining guardrails could lead to increased transmission, it is increasingly believed that COVID-19 will be much easier to control now, as much of the population is protected.

“We recognize that we will test our system because there will be a lot more mobility,” said Aragón. “Our goals during this transition period [are] to contain transmission, monitor variants and achieve collective immunity by continuing our vaccines. “

The biggest concern now for many officials is to persuade people who have not been vaccinated to get vaccinated.

“By all accounts, from a vaccine standpoint, California is doing pretty well,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, California Secretary of Health and Human Services, told reporters on Wednesday. “That said, we continue to work to make sure Californians who want to get vaccinated have questions about vaccines… have a chance to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”

This work is all the more essential now, according to officials and experts, that California remains below the level of vaccine coverage – generally estimated between 70% and 85% – considered necessary to finally put the pandemic in the rearview mirror.

Only about 46% of the state’s residents are fully vaccinated, which means they have received both the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines or the required single dose of Johnson & Johnson, according to data from The Times.

An unknown number of residents who are not vaccinated may also be temporarily shielded against the coronavirus as they have developed natural immunity after being infected.

At the end of May, the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services estimated 63% of residents there were protected from COVID-19 – 38% due to a previous infection.

“It’s really fundamentally important to keep in mind that if a state experiences a bad outbreak in winter… it certainly contributes to natural immunity,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, infectious disease expert at UC San Francisco. .

That, combined with the relatively strong vaccine coverage, is why Gandhi said she doesn’t think California will return to a worse wave of the pandemic.

“It’s a whole different time because we have vaccines – so we have this immunity that there won’t be flare-ups after we start mixing together,” she said.

Localized epidemics persist in places with low vaccination rates, such as rural northern California and the Central Valley. One potential problem could be an insufficient number of farm workers getting vaccinated, a particular risk as they travel extensively in the state’s vast agricultural areas.

Gaps also persist between racial and ethnic groups. In LA County, young Latinos and Blacks continue to be less immunized overall than their White, Asian or Native American counterparts.

If the virus reappears in a group of people who are not immune to the disease, further outbreaks are possible.

“We’ve all worked really hard to make these community transmission rates really low – and they’re low across the board,” said Barbara Ferrer, LA County Director of Public Health. “But when you start to see that even with low numbers, case rates are higher in populations with lower immunization coverage, you know that it doesn’t take much to create a much larger gap.” important. And because of the problem with the variants, you could go from a relatively low number of cases to a few large outbreaks that lead to a much higher number of cases. “

The pace of vaccination in California has also slowed significantly in recent times, reflecting a nationwide trend.

This is not surprising, as so many people have already rolled up their sleeves, and illustrates the difficult road ahead. Many of those who were anxious to get vaccinated probably have already done so, leaving a smaller cohort of refractories who are reluctant to get vaccinated or have encountered some sort of barrier to access that has prevented them from doing so. .

At the height of the vaccination campaign, providers statewide were administering about 400,000 doses of the vaccine per day, according to data compiled by The Times.

This average has since fallen to around 135,000 daily doses.

“While it is possible for us to have a successful reopening even with a slowdown in the number of vaccinations, it would greatly increase our confidence in our ability to reduce cases if we saw greater use of vaccines,” Ferrer said. .

In an effort to tempt those who remain on the fence, the state is hosting a vaccine lottery that will award cash prizes of $ 50,000 to 30 Californians. Fifteen of those winners were selected last week, and the rest will be determined on Friday. Officials will randomly draw the 10 grand prize winners on Tuesday, each of which will take home $ 1.5 million.

Effective the same day, California will revoke many of the restrictions on fully vaccinated people who have long been a part of daily life during a pandemic.

Coronavirus capacity restrictions and physical distancing requirements will be lifted at almost all businesses and other institutions. The months-old system of sorting counties into color-coded levels to determine how well operations can resume and businesses can reopen will be phased out.

Californians who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will also be able to get rid of their face masks in most situations. However, those who are not fully immunized should keep theirs in businesses and other indoor public places. (Fully vaccinated employees will likely have to wait until June 28 before they are not required to wear masks in indoor workplaces.)

“When capacity limits and distancing requirements are lifted next week, there will be a very real risk to people who are not fully vaccinated,” Ferrer said. “For these people in particular, once we reopen, your best protection will be your mask. “

Times writer Ben Welsh contributed to this report.

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