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California coronavirus cases plummet despite surges in Oregon, Washington

LOS ANGELES — Even as Oregon and Washington face new COVID-19 surges, there is growing optimism that California remains in recovery mode as coronavirus cases continued to fall dramatically along with related deaths.

California has continued to do better than any state, with the lowest per capita coronavirus case rate in the nation over the last week. Texas has double California’s rate; New York, quadruple; and Florida has nearly five times California’s case rate. Michigan still has the nation’s highest rate, 252 cases per 100,000 residents — nearly eight times California’s rate of 33 cases per 100,000 residents.

“In California, we’ve done much better,” University of California, San Francisco epidemiologist Dr. George Rutherford said. “We’re truly No. 1 here again: So we have a 37% decline in cases overall, and a 5% decline in hospitalizations, and almost a 50% drop, over the last two weeks, in terms of mortality.”

The coronavirus positivity rate “has fallen like a rock,” he added, hovering around 1%.

In a sign of this progress, Los Angeles County public health authorities on Sunday and Monday reported no new deaths related to COVID-19. Although officials cautioned that the figure was probably an undercount because of reporting delays on weekends, it still marked a bright spot, capping several months of progress in the fight against the coronavirus.

“We’re hopeful that deaths will continue to remain very low in the weeks ahead,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Monday. “Our ability to maintain low numbers of cases and correspondingly low numbers of hospitalizations and deaths can be attributed in large part to the increased numbers of people vaccinated.”

There are now fewer than 2,000 new confirmed coronavirus cases a day on average over the past week in California, a huge drop from about 45,000 cases a day at the peak of the surge in December and January. About 65 Californians have died every day from COVID-19 over the last week — the kinds of numbers not seen in six months — down from a peak of 562 deaths a day in January.

Cumulatively, there have been more than 61,500 COVID-19 deaths in California.

Despite the success of creating effective vaccines for COVID-19 in such a short time, the nation is now facing a second challenge: ensuring that everyone eligible to receive the vaccines feel comfortable getting vaccinated when it’s their turn.

Although 2,000 new cases a day still shows the coronavirus “has not gone away,” Rutherford said California has staged “a remarkable accomplishment given the depth of the epidemic here and the complexity of the state.”

By contrast, Oregon on Friday ordered the shutdown of indoor restaurant dining in 15 of its 36 counties, including much of the Portland area. Due to its surge, King County, which is home to Seattle, may soon be forced to shrink allowed indoor capacity at restaurants and gyms from 50% to 25%.

There are still some areas of California doing worse than others; of the state’s 58 counties, none is in the most restrictive purple tier of the state’s color-coded reopening plan, but 13 are in the second-most restrictive, or red, tier. They are largely in the Central Valley, the Sierra foothills, and sparsely populated counties on the far northern end of the state. Near Lake Tahoe, officials ordered a quarantine of “a significant number” of Truckee High School students after officials confirmed 32 positive cases.

If improving trends hold, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Marin and Trinity counties could enter California’s most lenient yellow tier as soon as this week, allowing gyms, movie theaters, amusement parks, sports venues and museums to expand allowed capacity.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has said he wants California to “fully reopen its economy” on June 15 and retire the tier system as long as hospitalization rates remain stable and low and vaccine supply is ample, while retaining some “common-sense” risk-reduction measures.

There remains some concern about decreasing interest in vaccinations; last week, L.A. County reported a 50% drop in booked appointments for the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Still, overall, California has one of the lowest rates of vaccine hesitancy in the nation.

Some of the counties that have done well with vaccinations include San Diego, San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties, where more than 60% of residents have received at least one dose of the shot. In L.A. County, 47% of residents have received at least one shot; in Orange and Ventura counties, 49% have done so; only 38% have received a shot in Riverside County; and 35% have in San Bernardino County.

There do continue to be concerns about disproportionate rates of vaccinations among some racial and ethnic groups. In L.A. County, for instance, while roughly 50% of eligible white, Asian American and Native American residents have received at least one dose of vaccine, only about 30% of eligible Latino and Black residents have received a shot.

And in Northern California’s most populous county, Santa Clara, only 1 in 10 Latinos age 16 or 17 have received at least one dose of vaccine; that’s much smaller than the 1 in 3 residents overall in Santa Clara County age 16 or 17 who have received a shot.

Santa Clara County officials are promoting evening and weekend vaccine clinic hours and expanding options to vaccinate people at home to get more people inoculated.

While variants continue to be potentially problematic, they haven’t been problematic in California lately.

Although the highly contagious U.K. variant (B.1.1.7) is believed to cause significant problems in the latest surge in Michigan, the California variant (B.1.427/B.1.429) is possibly keeping a lid on the U.K. variant in California. The California variant, though more contagious than the conventional strain, is less contagious than the U.K. variant — and if you had to choose between the two, the California variant is the better one to deal with.

“There’s real supposition that (the California variant) ... may be out-competing the U.K. variant,” Rutherford said.

From the data available to Rutherford, Washington and Oregon don’t appear to have had much of the California variant in their states. But there hasn’t been a troubling surge in California and Arizona, which have observed more cases of the California variant than the U.K. variant. California has identified about 15,000 cases of the California variant but about 3,500 of the U.K. variant.

There remains concern worldwide about the growing crisis in India, undergoing the worst COVID-19 surge any country has faced since the coronavirus was first detected in China more than a year ago. A homegrown variant, the so-called “double mutant” variant officially known as B.1.617, is circulating there and experts are investigating its effect on the surge. A number of scientists have also said that a key role in India’s surge was many people abandoning masks, attending election rallies and returning to sports games and religious festivals; the return to normal followed a premature declaration by the governing political party that it had “defeated” COVID-19.

There have been reports that vaccinated medical staff in India have contracted the B.1.617 variant. That has raised concerns whether vaccines are generally less effective against the B.1.617 variant, or if these examples are rare instances where the virus “breaks through” the vaccine-induced immunity of the medical staffer.

But based on information Rutherford has reviewed, it appears that the homegrown Indian B.1.617 variant “seems to be controllable by current vaccines ... the AstraZeneca vaccine seems to work pretty well,” Rutherford said. “But only 5 1/2% of all Indian adults have been fully vaccinated.”

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(Los Angeles Times staff writers Richard Read in Lebanon, Oregon, and David Pierson in Singapore and special correspondent Parth M.N. in Mumbai contributed to this report.)

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