CDC Finds Evidence That Coronavirus Was Present in US Earlier Than Thought

Federal scientists have found evidence that the coronavirus was likely present on the West Coast a month before the earliest known date the pathogen is currently thought to have circulated in the U.S.

Scientists with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study Tuesday that found coronavirus antibodies in 106 samples of donated blood collected by the Red Cross in the U.S. last December and January.

Previously, the earliest known cases of COVID-19 were detected by public health agencies between Jan. 21 and Feb. 23. The first confirmed case in the U.S. was identified in Washington state on Jan. 20. The first confirmed Bay Area case was a resident of Santa Clara County, who fell ill on Jan. 31.

The CDC found the antibodies in 39 blood samples from California, Oregon and Washington state, taken between Dec.13 and Dec. 16, 2019, suggesting the virus was circulating before then.

Charles Chiu, who studies infectious diseases at UCSF, categorized the study as “strong” but said some of the samples could represent false positives.

He pointed out that the presence of antibodies for SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen that causes COVID-19, does not automatically mean a person was infected with the coronavirus; it’s possible that some people have preexisting antibodies for it.

Chiu said only two of the samples “have very, very strong or close to definitive evidence that they were derived from a person who was infected.”

“The take-home message from the study is that there probably were a few infections that were really due to SARS-Cov-2, in December and January,” Chiu said. “But the cases were still very, very rare.”

The study was unable to determine if the cases originated overseas or from communities along the West Coast.

—Kevin Stark (@StarkKev)

Study Shows California Essential Workers With High Excess Mortality During Pandemic

A study out of UCSF has found that some essential workers died at disproportionate rates in 2020, with Black and Latino workers affected the most.

The study has yet to be peer-reviewed and was posted to a preprint server.

Using California Department of Public Health death records, the researchers estimated how many more deaths in California occurred in March through December of last year than historical trends would have predicted without the deadly effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The analysis concluded that Californians 18 to 65 experienced a 22% increase in mortality compared to the expected rate given normal circumstances.

The study categorized fatalities by occupation and ethnicity.

Excess mortality was highest in food/agriculture workers, a 39% increase, followed by transportation/logistics workers, who suffered a 28% rise.

“(W)e can see among agricultural workers that a thousand more people died than we would have expected," said Dr. Yea-Hung Chen, an epidemiologist and one of the researchers on the study. "In transportation/logistics, we're seeing about 1,500 more deaths than we would have expected had the pandemic not occurred.”

The combination of ethnicity and occupation appeared to be especially deadly. From the study:

Latino Californians experienced a 36% increase in mortality, with a 59% increase among Latino food/agriculture workers. Black Californians experienced a 28% increase in mortality, with a 36% increase for Black retail workers. Asian Californians experienced an 18% increase, with a 40% increase among Asian healthcare workers. Excess mortality among White working-age Californians increased by 6%, with a 16% increase among White food/agriculture workers.

"In-person essential work is a likely venue of transmission of coronavirus infection and must be addressed through strict enforcement of health orders in workplace settings and protection of in-person workers," the study concludes. "Vaccine distribution prioritizing in-person essential workers will be important for reducing excess COVID mortality."

Chen said he hopes the study will bring about more workplace protections and that essential workers who can't work from home will be prioritized for vaccines.

California, however, just changed its system of prioritizing some essential workers for vaccination to one that will be strictly age-based, starting in mid-February.

More on the study from the San Francisco Chronicle and Quartz.

Jon Brooks and Julie Chang

California COVID-19 Numbers Continue to Trend in Right Direction

The trendlines for coronavirus metrics are continuing in the right direction, the state reported Wednesday.

The 14-day rolling average of daily new cases fell to under 28,000 statewide, down from a high of more than 53,000 on Jan. 1.

The 14-day average rate for people testing positive for the virus is 8.8%, the lowest percentage since Dec. 8.

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the state has dropped each day for two weeks straight, and the availability of ICU beds has also risen.

Deaths from COVID-19, however, remain high. The number recorded Tuesday was 697. That is not unexpected, as it takes weeks for new infections, which surged over the holidays, to result in hospitalizations, which in turn will lead to more deaths.

The state now reports more than 2.7 million vaccine doses have been administered.

Laura Klivans and Jon Brooks

Black Doctors' Group Wages Painstaking Campaign to Counter Vaccine Hesitancy

In September, after the Food and Drug Administration authorized certain COVID-19 treatments seemingly based more on presidential puffery than on clinical data, some physicians decided to take matters into their own hands.

Specifically, the National Medical Association, a professional society of African American doctors, formed its own in-house FDA to vet the data when the official one seemed not to be. At first, the task force was framed as a stand-in — another instance in the long history of Black leaders stepping in where the government had failed. And eventually, its members did review the results and endorse the emergency authorizations for both the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines.

But they’ve moved beyond mere recommendations. They’ve also taken on the slower, more painstaking work of building and maintaining patients’ trust in these vaccines. As Rodney Hood, one of the physicians on the NMA task force, put it, “We realize that Black people are at the highest risk for coronavirus but the least likely to want to take the vaccine, so we’re trying to reverse that.”

Racism in the health care system is part of the reason that the NMA exists. The American Medical Association, which set standards for the profession, repeatedly denied membership to Black doctors — so in 1895, they founded a group of their own, “conceived in no spirit of racial exclusiveness, fostering no ethnic antagonisms, but born out of the exigency of the American environment.”

Read the full article from STAT.

Eric Boodman, STAT

Lawmakers Vent After Being 'Blindsided' by Newsom on Lifting of Restrictions

There’s a natural push-and-pull between California's governor and the Legislature, no matter who’s in charge.

But tensions seem especially high since news leaked last weekend that Gov. Gavin Newsom was lifting the state's COVID-19 stay-at-home orders for all regions on Monday, a move that seemed to catch many lawmakers off guard.

While it’s not unusual for legislators to privately have gripes about the governor, Newsom's announcement pushed some of those grievances out into the open.

Several lawmakers openly complained on Twitter about learning Newsom was relaxing COVID-19 restrictions via social media, rather from the governor’s office.

Assemblyman Chad Mayes, I-Yucca Valley, said many of his colleagues are tired of feeling like they’ve been left out of the loop.

“There is this very, very real frustration, not just among Republicans, but also among Democrats in the Legislature, that the administration has not done a good job of reaching out to them to be able to communicate with them on the decisions that are being made," Mayes said.

It’s not just about Newsom’s abrupt lifting of the stay-at-home orders.

Lawmakers have skewered Newsom’s Employment Development Department for mismanaging unemployment claims during the pandemic. They’ve complained the governor was making decisions unilaterally while the Legislature was in recess because of COVID-19.

Mayes said lawmakers have a right to be informed and included.

“The Legislature is a coequal branch of government and the new administration has really sidelined the Legislature as related to the pandemic," he said.

Read the full story.

Katie Orr

San Jose Hospital Says COO Disciplined Over Vaccine Appointments

Disciplinary action has been taken against Chief Operating Officer Gary Purushotham of Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose over an incident involving COVID-19 vaccines inappropriately offered to the staff of a school district, a spokesperson for the hospital said.

The San Jose Spotlight first obtained the email from the Los Gatos Union School District's superintendent that urged employees to sign up for appointments as health care workers after the hospital offered them slots.

About 65 teachers subsequently received shots, bypassing Santa Clara County eligibility requirements that prioritize seniors and health care workers.

The appointments were offered by Good Samaritan for what school district Superintendent Paul Johnson's email framed as a gesture made in return for a past fundraising effort on behalf of the hospital.

Johnson later apologized for that characterization, calling it "his own personal interpretation."

After the incident came to light, the county stopped supplying first doses to the hospital until it submits a plan for abiding by county guidelines.

Good Samaritan CEO Joe DeSchryver also apologized for the incident, saying the offer was made in order to avoid wasting unused doses that had thawed.

But Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams, answering a question at a Tuesday briefing, said the offer did not "appear [to be] related to wastage."

Williams said "a lot of factors" about the incident were concerning, including that the district "appeared to be affirmatively suggesting that staff should sign up ... as if they were health care workers."

"The sign-up system is an attestation that you are who you say you are," Williams said. "We are requiring people to attest, that means under penalty of perjury, to affirm their eligibility."

Good Samaritan says the hospital's revised vaccination plan will be submitted to the county by the end of the week.

Polly Stryker and Jon Brooks

In Marked Shift From Trump, New Pandemic Team Projects 90,000 More Deaths in Four Weeks

As many as 90,000 Americans are projected to die from the coronavirus in the next four weeks, the Biden administration warned in its first science briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic, as experts outlined efforts to improve the delivery and injection of COVID-19 vaccines.

The hourlong briefing Wednesday by the team, charged by President Biden with ending the pandemic, was meant to deliver on his promise of “leveling" with the American people about the state of the outbreak that has already claimed more than 425,000 U.S. lives. It marked a sharp contrast from what had become the Trump show, in the last administration, when public health officials were repeatedly undermined by a president who shared his unproven ideas without hesitation.

The briefing, which was marred by technical difficulties, featured Jeff Zients, the Biden administration’s coordinator for pandemic response; his deputy, Andy Slavitt; Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert; Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, the chair of Biden’s COVID-19 equality task force; and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Zients, who previously ran the Obama administration's efforts to salvage the rollout of HealthCare.gov, used to sign up for Affordable Care Act insurance exchanges, repeated that the federal government no longer has a stockpile of vaccines to distribute. He added that the Biden administration was examining additional ways of speeding vaccine production, a day after the president announced the U.S. plans to have delivered enough doses for 300 million Americans by the end of summer.

Read the full story.

Zeke Miller and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Associated Press

Unemployed Californians Suffer After State Pays $11 Billion — and Counting — in Fraudulent Claims

As state officials frantically work to review hundreds of thousands of frozen unemployment accounts for fraud, a new report from the California state auditor found that the unemployment department’s inefficiency and lack of advanced planning continue to create delays — and that the department is still not doing all it needs to in order to correct the issue.

The report is a response to a request for an emergency audit from the state’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee. State legislators responded Tuesday by asking for an oversight hearing focused on ensuring the Employment Development Department implements the auditor’s recommendations.

The audit comes one day after EDD confirmed it has paid out at least $11 billion worth of fraudulent unemployment benefits since the beginning of the pandemic. A good chunk of the claims are still being reviewed, and Labor Secretary Julie Su says the agency expects the number of fraudulent claims will continue to increase.

"There is no sugarcoating the reality,"  Su said at a press event Monday. "California did not have sufficient security measures in place to prevent this level of fraud, and criminals took advantage of the situation."

Read the full story.

Mary Franklin Harvin