California COVID-19 plunges to new lows, fueling hope big reopening won’t bring new surge
LOS ANGELES – California will fully reopen its economy next Tuesday under remarkably favorable conditions, with the COVID-19 risk rapidly receding and new cases being reported at the lowest levels in 14 months.
The state has for several months recorded one of the lowest coronavirus infection rates in the country, a distinction that’s endured despite the end of many restrictions and the rise of new variants. The numbers and rapid rollout of vaccinations have given public health officials even more confidence that life can return to some semblance of normal without the horrific surges that thwarted California’s two previous attempts at reopening.
California has one of the highest rates of vaccinations in the nation, with 56% of residents of all ages — and 71% of adults — having received at least one dose of vaccine. Thirteen states now have at least 70% of their adults at least partially vaccinated, achieving a goal set by President Biden weeks before a July Fourth target.
That rollout of vaccines, especially in California’s most populous areas, have helped tame COVID-19 and tamped down transmission. Also a factor, especially in Los Angeles County, is the lingering immunity of many people who survived COVID-19 during the devastating surges in the last 15 months.
At its peak in January, the state was reporting 45,000 coronavirus cases a day. Now, California is reporting an average of fewer than 1,000 new coronavirus per day over the most recent seven-day period, according to data compiled by The Times.
The last time case counts were this low was March 31, 2020 — when the pandemic was just beginning to roar to life and testing was so limited that many infections likely went undetected.
That isn’t the case this time around. California’s latest seven-day average of 990 new coronavirus cases per day comes even as roughly 129,000 tests were conducted daily over that same period, Times’ data show. In the late spring of 2020, the earliest time that reliable data were available, there were only about 50,000 tests conducted daily.
COVID-19 hospitalizations are now at the lowest levels since California began systematically tracking that statistic on March 30, 2020, when 1,617 people with COVID-19 were in hospitals. As of Wednesday, there were 1,001 people with COVID-19 in California’s hospitals, the most recent data available; that’s down 95% from the peak of nearly 22,000 hospitalized in early January.
An average of 32 COVID-19 deaths over the past week is now being reported daily, the lowest such number since April 4, 2020. At its peak, California was reporting 549 COVID-19 deaths a day over a weekly period.
“Right now, California is doing very well with respect to COVID,” Dr. Tomás Aragón, state public health officer and director of the California Department of Public Health, said this week.
That’s not to say there’s no risk of future outbreaks, especially since 44% of Californians have still yet to be even partially vaccinated. Although officials and experts alike acknowledge that removing some of the remaining guardrails could lead to an uptick in transmission, there’s growing belief that COVID-19 will be much easier to control now because so much of the population is protected.
“We recognize that we will be stress-testing our system because there will be a lot more mobility,” Aragón said. “Our goals during this transition period [are] to contain transmission, to monitor the variants and to get to herd immunity by continuing our vaccines.”
The biggest concern now for many officials is persuading people who have not been vaccinated to get their shots.
“On all accounts, from a vaccine standpoint, California is doing quite well,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s health and human services secretary, told reporters Wednesday. “That said, we are continuing our work to ensure that Californians who are wanting to get vaccinated, have questions about vaccines ... that they do get a chance to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”
That work is all the more essential now, officials and experts say, as California remains short of the level of vaccine coverage — usually estimated between 70% and 85% — believed necessary to finally put the pandemic in the rearview mirror.
Only about 46% of residents statewide are fully vaccinated, meaning they have either received both shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines or the single required dose of Johnson & Johnson, Times’ data show.
An unknown number of residents who are not vaccinated may also be temporarily armored against the coronavirus because they developed natural immunity after being infected.