Even If Cases Again Rise, Epidemiologists Say, California's Immunization Strategy Is Working

The rapid decline in newly reported cases of COVID-19 has slowed in recent weeks. But that doesn't necessarily mean the state is again headed for the dark days of the winter, when deaths skyrocketed and patients filled up hospitals to the point where ambulances had to wait in line around the block to get coronavirus patients admitted.

For most of January and all of February, California’s coronavirus curve steadily flattened as the state came out of the surge. But for several days last week, the state's rolling seven-day average positivity rate ticked higher than the two-week average for the first time since Jan. 11, according to state statistics.

Normally, the seven-day positivity rate climbing higher than the 14-day rate would indicate an upward trend. Not this time, necessarily: A data dump from L.A. may have skewed the numbers when Los Angeles County in one day logged 3,678 cases previously reported as “probable.”

Nevertheless, health experts say California’s declining cases have likely leveled off.

“This is a plateau,” said George Rutherford, an epidemiologist with UC San Francisco.

But unlike in other lulls during the pandemic, the state now has three vaccines to fight the spread of the coronavirus. Adult Californians over the age of 65 have received nearly half of the more than 12 million shots the state has administered, so far.

That’s a big deal because seniors are much more likely to get severely ill from the virus. Nearly 3 out of every 4 Californians who have died during the pandemic have been older than 65.

The vaccination of the most vulnerable Californians means the number of newly reported cases are not nearly as important as they were even just a month ago.

“Once we are in a situation where the people who get sick are unlikely to get very sick — that is, they are the lowest risk citizens — then the number of COVID cases doesn't become as big of a concern,” Stanford epidemiologist Steven Goodman said. He says the most important numbers for people to pay attention to are hospitalizations and deaths.

“We've seen a really steep drop in the number of hospitalized patients over the past four-six weeks,” he said, calling the trend “very encouraging” and attributing it, in part, to the state’s vaccine campaign.

“It looks like the immunization strategy could be having the effect that we want it to, which is to protect those most likely to burden the health care system and get very sick and die,” he said. “And we need to keep doing exactly what we've been doing on the immunization front — hopefully move down the age, comorbidity, underlying illness-spectrum and get as much protection as we can.”

Roughly a third of adult Californians age 18-49 have received one shot. Beginning Monday, millions of Californians with health conditions and disabilities started making appointments.

“California has pretty substantial levels of immunity through either naturally acquired or vaccine-acquired immunity,” Rutherford said, adding that in Northern California, at least, he hasn’t seen an indication that the more infectious U.K. variant (B.1.1.7) has taken deep root within the population.

Will the coronavirus variant begin spreading rapidly enough in the community to fuel the fourth surge? Maybe, if it or another more infectious mutant seeds rapidly.

“But it’s not inevitable,” Rutherford said. “Spring is coming, people will be outside more, and there’s so much immunity in the population, much more than there ever was before as we came down off of previous peaks.”

Case counts in the state remain far below the pandemic apex, with an average of roughly 3,300 new cases being recorded each day this past week. Similarly, hospitalizations and deaths from the virus are both down.

Kevin Stark

Newsom's Use of Emergency Powers Upheld by State Appeals Court

California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s use of emergency powers to make far-reaching policies during the pandemic was upheld Wednesday by state appellate judges who rejected a lower court finding that the Democrat had done too much unilaterally.

Three judges from the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento ruled unanimously that the prior judge “erred in interpreting the Emergency Services Act to prohibit the Governor from issuing quasi-legislative orders in an emergency."

“We conclude the issuance of such orders did not constitute an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power,” Presiding Justice Vance Raye wrote in ruling on a lawsuit brought by Republican state legislators.

The court already had stayed the earlier ruling by Sutter County Superior Court Judge Sarah Heckman that Newsom unconstitutionally usurped the Legislature’s power.

Heckman more broadly issued an injunction — which also had been temporarily halted by the appeals court — barring Newsom from issuing any orders under the California Emergency Services Act that amended state laws or legislative policy.

Newsom did so dozens of times during the pandemic in what amounted to one-man rule, Assemblymen James Gallagher and Kevin Kiley said.

The appeals court said the lower court rulings raised “matters of great public concern regarding the Governor’s orders in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic emergency” but agreed with the governor’s contention that he acted within the broad emergency authority granted him under state law in times of crisis.

The appeals court relied on a section of the law that says the governor shall “have complete authority over all agencies of the state government and the right to exercise within the area designated all police power vested in the state by the Constitution and laws of the State of California.”

Kiley and Gallagher said they would appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Newsom issued the nation’s first statewide lockdown order in March 2020 and followed up with a torrent of executive orders, acting unilaterally on everything from halting evictions to allowing marriages to be conducted by video or teleconference.

He also suspended school deadlines, gave consumers and businesses more time to pay taxes, changed the rules for public meetings, suspended medical privacy rules, and allowed grocery stores to hand out free single-use bags, among many other changes.

The lawsuit itself centered on just one executive order requiring election officials to open hundreds of locations statewide where voters could cast ballots, despite the potential health risk.

Read the full story.

Don Thompson, Associated Press

Walk-In Vaccination Appointments Available at Bay Area Walmarts

Walmart and its subsidiary Sam's Club will provide COVID-19 vaccinations to anyone who walks in or schedules an appointment at their pharmacy locations across the U.S.

More than two dozen of the stores are located in the Bay Area.

Vaccine supplies have surged even as eligibility has widened to people 16 and older.

"Widespread vaccination is the only way we will eventually end the pandemic and help our country reopen, and we don't want anyone to get left behind as we enter this new chapter in our fight against COVID-19," said Dr. Cheryl Pegus, who oversees Walmart's health and wellness unit. She said the company should prioritize distributing the vaccine to underserved and vulnerable populations.

—Bay City News and KQED News

Oakland Coliseum Vaccination Site Shutting Down as Demand Plummets

In another sign of improving times, the Oakland Coliseum's mass vaccination site will close May 23.

Alameda County and the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services say the site is shutting down amid a huge drop in demand for COVID  vaccines, which have been so effective that California is planning to end most of its pandemic restrictions on June 15.

Requests for appointments at the Coliseum site have gone from 4,000 to 400 per day, according to the county.

As of May 4, 72% of county residents 16 and over have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 47% have been fully vaccinated.

CalOES opened the Coliseum site Feb. 15 in partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The state will hand off the site to Alameda County on May 10 so that second doses can be administered, followed by a full closure two weeks later.

The county says it is now changing its inoculation strategy to "meet people where they" are in offering access to vaccines by providing "localized options."

"We can now shift our resources into additional focused efforts that will reach residents who are more comfortable receiving their vaccines from trusted community partners and deploying our resources deeply into the communities that have borne the brunt of the pandemic," said Colleen Chawla, the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency director, in a press release.

Other vaccine sites in the county besides the Coliseum include the Buchanan parking lot at Golden Gate Fields, the Alameda County Fairgrounds, and Fremont High School in Fruitvale.

Alameda County residents not yet vaccinated can make an appointment by calling 510-208-4VAX or by signing up online. Some CVS pharmacies are also now offering walk-in appointments.

Jon Brooks

Some CVS Pharmacies Now Offering Walk-In Vaccinations

Once precious vaccination appointments appear to be more plentiful by the day. For instance, you can now get a COVID vaccine without an appointment at any CVS pharmacy that offers them, the company announced Wednesday.

More than 1,100 locations in California offer the vaccine, CVS says. Same-day scheduling for appointments, within one hour in some cases, is also available.

As of May 3, more than 13 million people in the state, nearly 42% of those eligible, have been fully vaccinated, and an additional 6 million have received one shot and are waiting for a second.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the daily number of vaccine doses administered in the state has been steadily falling for the last few weeks, with a steeper drop coming in May.

-Jon Brooks

Hard-Hit California Tourism Industry Wants You to Travel Again

California tourism leaders are urging residents to spend their pent-up travel dollars exploring their home state, as coronavirus case numbers stay low and the industry reels from a 55% decline in revenue.

California, which has been one of the most restrictive states in terms of limiting activity during the pandemic, has the lowest infection rate in the country. On Tuesday, Los Angeles and San Francisco received permission to reopen bars, restaurants, museums and businesses more broadly.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who faces a recall election due in part to his handling of the pandemic, says the state is on track to fully reopen its economy in mid-June.

As vaccination numbers rise, more people are booking trips to favorite sites in the wine country and the Santa Barbara coast. Last week, Disneyland reopened after an unprecedented 13-month closure.

Tourism revenue in the state plummeted from $145 billion in 2019 to $65 billion last year. The figure is not expected to top pre-pandemic levels until 2024 as international travelers stay away for now, said Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of Visit California, the nonprofit that markets the state.

The travel and tourism industry has lost half of an estimated 1.2 million jobs. Travel spending is expected to near $98 billion this year and $126 billion in 2022, topping $151 billion in 2024.

Elected officials and travel executives appeared at San Francisco's convention center Tuesday to promote in-state travel. Joe D’Alessandro, president and CEO of San Francisco Travel, said San Francisco and other gateway cities that rely heavily on international tourism were especially hard hit. Spending from international visitors dropped 84% to $829 million last year, and spending on meetings and conventions fell 85% to $275 million.

During the pandemic, the Moscone Convention Center served as shelter for homeless residents, the city's emergency operations hub, and a mass vaccination site.

“Now it’s time to get this building open for its core function of hosting meetings and large scale events to really support the heart of this city, and you’ll see this happening this fall,” D’Alessandro said.

Beteta said the state lost $12 billion from June 2020 through February as residents left to vacation out of state, including $1 billion that went to Mexico.

Janie Har, Associated Press

South San Jose Gets New VTA Rail Station Vaccination Site Amid Concern Over Slowing Demand

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority on Monday opened a new vaccination site at the Santa Teresa light rail station in South San Jose. The new location comes shortly after Santa Clara County health officials raised concerns over the region’s decrease in vaccine demand and the need to vaccinate younger residents.

“There’s plenty of supply, and anything we can do to help to make it easier for people who want to get vaccinated, we’re trying to do,” said Stacey Hendler Ross, a VTA spokesperson.

The new site has drive-thru and walk-up services where appointments are preferred, but not required. It is capable of administering around 900 to 1,000 vaccines a day, Hendler Ross said.

Bay Area Community Health, which is staffing the site (make an appointment here), had been operating out of a small clinic on Monterey Highway.

“They were being overwhelmed with people who wanted to get the vaccine, and they just did not have the capacity to treat everyone,” Hendler Ross said.

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San Jose Councilmember Sergio Jimenez suggested turning the Santa Teresa station’s parking lot into a new drive-thru vaccination location.

“They had been providing some vaccines over the past two weeks as they were sort of ramping up and working out the kinks,” Hendler Ross said. “And this is the first full week of vaccines that they’re providing.”

The site is expected to stay open through July, but the agency said it could remain open for longer if demand is still there. The transit agency is also offering free bus, light rail and paratransit rides for those going to receive their vaccines.

“We certainly hope that this helps make it easier for people who want to get a vaccine to just drive right through or get off the light rail train and walk right over to get a vaccine,” Hendler Ross said.

- Gabriella Frenes

You Can Get a Vaccine in Contra Costa County No Matter Where You Live

Come one, come all.

Contra Costa County is flush with COVID-19 vaccines, so much so that its public health clinics are now offering them to anyone 16 and older, regardless of where they live or work.

What previously had been reserved for county residents and workers is now up for grabs for people from other parts of the Bay Area, the state, or really anywhere in the world, health officials announced Monday.

"I think it's important to realize that we're not safe until everybody's safe, and the virus doesn't respect borders," said Dr. Chris Farnitano, the county’s health officer. "And so, if there's virus raging in surrounding counties, that's going to put our residents at risk."

The move comes at a turning point in the county's vaccine rollout, when "supply finally outstripped demand in the last few weeks," Farnitano said. At its peak, in mid-April, the county was administering about 14,000 doses a day, and it's now down to fewer than 12,000, he said, resulting in a growing number of unfilled appointments at county vaccine sites.

"We're actually starting to ask for fewer doses from the feds and the state ... to adjust for that decreased demand, but make sure we're still being good stewards of all these vaccine doses, and not letting open vials go unused," he said.

More than 650,000 people — 70% of those ages 16 and over — have been at least partially vaccinated, and over 50% have been fully vaccinated, according to county health data.

Reaching the remaining population, Farnitano noted, will be a big challenge.

More rural areas in the far eastern stretches of the county — including places like Bethel Island and Oakley — have among the lowest vaccination rates, he said. Rates have also lagged among residents in their 20s, he added, a cohort that is typically harder to convince to seek medical care. And, he said, lower vaccination rates among the county's Latino and Black populations remain, although the gap between those groups and the overall population seems to be narrowing.

"Really, it's moving from kind of a wholesale approach to a retail approach," Farnitano said. "And really working with trusted partners, working to address different barriers and different concerns."

Anyone can now schedule a vaccine appointment online or by calling 833-829-2626. They can also visit any county walk-in clinic without an appointment.

Matthew Green