Good evening. I’m Amina Khan, and it’s Thursday, Nov. 12. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.
One of the hardest things to grasp about the risk the coronavirus poses is how social gatherings can act like a lit match tossed into a drought-stricken forest, turning a tiny flame into a devastating wildfire.
So here’s a true story of what happened this summer after a California couple held a wedding reception for 55 people at the Big Moose Inn in Millinocket, Maine. One of the guests turned out to have a coronavirus infection. Over the next few weeks, the virus spread to 176 others. Seven of those infected died. And the kicker? None of the people who lost their lives had even attended the reception.
A new report about the outbreak by officials from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention lays out exactly how a single coronavirus case spawned so much suffering and death.
First, some context: Few people who found themselves in the virus’s path were taking the kinds of mask-wearing and social-distancing precautions that could have reduced their risk of infection. Had people taken the threat more seriously — perhaps by avoiding social gatherings in the first place and staying home when they were sick — the reception might not have blown up into a super-spreading event.
My colleague Karen Kaplan lays out how the virus went — well — viral day by day. The bridal couple arrived in Maine on Aug. 6. The fateful reception was held the next day in Millinocket, a town with about 4,500 residents that had reported zero coronavirus cases. Wedding reception guests did not comply with signs requiring them to wear face masks, and did not stand at least six feet apart.
On Aug. 8, one of the guests came down with a “fever, runny nose, cough, and fatigue.” Two days later, a musician at the reception developed a cough, but still decided to attend a meeting at a school in East Millinocket. The day after that, the parent of a wedding guest experienced a fever, chills, cough and several other symptoms associated with COVID-19. Even so, this parent still went to work at a long-term care facility 100 miles from the venue. Three days later, another wedding guest came down with symptoms but still showed up for an eight-hour shift at the York County Jail, more than 200 miles from Millinocket.
I think you can see where this is going.
You should head over and read the whole thing. It feels like a horror movie where you’re screaming at the screen, telling the protagonist not to go down the darkened corridor — but they do it anyway, and your worst fears are realized.
Within a few weeks, a single case had caused an outbreak at a long-term care facility full of vulnerable patients and another at a jail where 41% of inmates and 42% of the correctional facility workers were infected (plus 16 of their “household contacts”), and it had sent so many exposed teachers into quarantine and isolation that the first day of school was pushed back two weeks while officials fought to get the situation under control.
Public health officials in California and beyond have stressed that well-intentioned holiday gatherings with family and friends have the potential to send the state into a viral tailspin. This report shows why their fears are justified.
By the numbers
California cases and deaths as of 6:04 p.m. PST Thursday:
Track the latest numbers and how they break down in California with our graphics.
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It’s official: California has reached 1 million coronavirus cases, hitting that dubious milestone a day after Texas. Over the last week, the state has averaged about 6,300 new cases a day, compared to 3,200 a month ago. Hospitalizations are up to 3,300, a 40% jump from two weeks ago.
The picture looks similarly grim in Los Angeles, where the average number of daily cases as of Nov. 3 was 1,464, up from 988 a month before. Recent counts have climbed even higher: On Thursday, Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer reported 2,533 new cases.
In the midst of this surge, health authorities say drastic steps must be taken to slow the spread.
“We all need to act now,” Ferrer said during a briefing. “The actions we take today, tomorrow and next week have tremendous impact on the health and well-being of many, many people across the county. If, collectively, we fail to stop the acceleration of new cases, we will have no choice but to look at additional actions.”
She did not spell out what those steps might be, though she did stress that the county sits on a knife’s edge, and that everyone must do their part to prevent the surge from getting worse.
Officials are recommending that residents stay home for Thanksgiving. Those who do travel out of state will be asked to quarantine for 14 days when they return home, she said.
Ferrer added that she too would be making the sacrifice and wouldn’t get to see her grandchildren this year because they live in another state.
“Like all of you, I wish things were really different. But they’re not,” she said. “And my feeling is I don’t want to be one of the people that’s contributing to not only increasing cases that restrict our ability to continue with our recovery journey, but increasing cases that could result in other people getting sick and even dying.”
Experts and residents alike are wondering how bad this winter will be. Officials fear that the hospitalizations and deaths will climb as colder weather and holiday gatherings approach. State officials are bracing for the worst and have already rolled back reopenings in some counties where case numbers have swelled.
Keep in mind, hospitalizations and deaths are lagging indicators of coronavirus spread — they reflect virus exposures that took place weeks earlier. Those who‘ve been infected during the current spike “won’t become patients in hospitals for another two to three weeks,” said California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly.
That means it will probably take weeks to get a fuller picture of the damage done over the holiday season.
Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert at UC Berkeley, said he believes the coronavirus is likely to swamp California in December and that parts of the state economy will have to be shut down. Travel to and from states with high infection rates will also be a big problem, even with quarantine requirements. If the virus is fire, he added, then humans are the fuel.
“As long as there is fuel around, the virus is going to get there,” he said, adding that the state may have to start enforcing its mask mandate with fines.
It’s possible that people won’t take the pandemic threat seriously until someone they know has died because of it. A recent study in the Annals of Internal Medicine says that may not happen until March 1, when 500,000 Americans are likely to have died of COVID-19.
For what it’s worth, it sounds like many Californians are heeding the warnings. Thanksgiving travel will be relatively light this year thanks to pandemic fears. It will likely be Southern Californians’ biggest drop in Thanksgiving holiday travel since the Great Recession of 2008, according to a forecast by the Auto Club of Southern California.
The Auto Club predicts that 3.86 million Southern Californians will get out of town, down 13.5% from 4.46 million residents in 2019. (In 2008, Thanksgiving travel fell 26%.) And 92% of them plan to drive, up from 86% last year.
— For general safety, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds (here’s a super-fun how-to video). Stop touching your face, and keep your phone clean. Practice social distancing, maintaining a six-foot radius of personal space in public. And wear a mask if you leave home. Here’s how to do it right.
— Watch for symptoms including fever, cough, shortness of breath, chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and loss of taste or smell. If you’re worried you might be infected, call your doctor or urgent care clinic before going there.
— Need a COVID-19 test? Here’s how to receive a free test if you’re in L.A. County. And here’s a map of testing sites across California.
— Here’s how to care for someone with COVID-19, from monitoring their symptoms to preventing the virus’ spread.
— If your job has been affected by the pandemic, here’s how to file for unemployment.
— Here are some free resources for restaurant workers and entertainment industry professionals having trouble making ends meet.
— Advice for helping kids navigate pandemic life includes being honest about uncertainties, acknowledging their feelings and sticking to a routine. Here’s guidance from the CDC.
— In need of mental health services? Here are resources for coping during the crisis from the CDC and the L.A. County Department of Mental Health. L.A. County residents can also call (800) 854-7771 or text “LA” to 741741.
— For domestic violence victims, the pandemic can pose a “worst-case scenario,” advocates say. If you or someone you know is experiencing such abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or L.A. County’s hotline at 1-800-978-3600. Here are more ways to get help.
Around the nation and the world
For most of the pandemic, President Trump bet that the best way to help the economy was to downplay the risk posed by the virus and ignore disruptive public health measures that could have slowed its spread. Now President-elect Joe Biden is making the opposite bet, implementing a plan that acknowledges and confronts the crisis. A more direct attack on the virus will be better for the nation’s health and the economy, the thinking goes.
So far, scientists, economists and other experts seem to agree.
“We could have much more economic activity if everyone were consistently wearing masks, maintaining physical distancing, washing hands, all of those things that we really do know help check the spread of the disease,” said Katherine Baicker, a health policy expert at the University of Chicago.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, largely sidelined by Trump during the crisis, backs that up. The agency cited research from Goldman Sachs showing that boosting mask use by as little as 15% could prevent the need for lockdowns and reduce associated losses by up to $1 trillion. That’s a healthy 5% of the American economy.
The CDC also released more detailed scientific evidence that cloth masks protect wearers as well as those around them. That could help boost public acceptance of what will likely be a more aggressive policy under the new administration. But mask use may still be a hard sell to Trump loyalists, for whom refusing to mask up has become something of a political symbol. My colleague Don Lee lays out the hurdles that Biden faces in rebuilding the economy in unprecedented times, as well as some forces that may work in his favor.
Trump, meanwhile, spent another day secluded in the White House. He tweeted, watched television and telephoned allies, focusing more on his own future than on governing in the midst of this pandemic.
Now that his own political fate has been decided, “he could care less, or even less than before,” said one administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Developers of Sputnik V, Russia’s experimental COVID-19 vaccine, say that early, interim data suggests their two-shot vaccine appears to be 92% effective. But experts have already questioned that statement.
The claim came Wednesday, two days after U.S. pharma giant Pfizer made a similar announcement. But the Russian figure is based on far fewer coronavirus cases.
Some experts say the data may have been rushed in order to keep up with the global race for an effective vaccine. “The Sputnik data are based on only 20 cases of COVID-19 in the trial participants, compared to more than 90 cases in the earlier trial,” Eleanor Riley, professor of immunology and infectious disease at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, said in a statement.
It remained unclear from the Russian announcement how COVID-19 was diagnosed in the trial participants and whether all of them, including asymptomatic participants, were tested for coronavirus infections.
Surveys, meanwhile, show that many Russians are skeptical about the shots. According to a late August poll by the country’s top independent pollster, 54% of Russians were not prepared to take them. That hasn’t stopped Russia from promoting Sputnik V abroad. The country’s Direct Investment Fund said it had requests for more than 1.2 billion doses of the vaccine from over 50 countries.
Russia is dealing with the world’s fifth-largest coronavirus caseload, with more than 1.8 million confirmed cases to date.
Finally, you might recall that secretive South Korean doomsday Christian sect that was widely blamed for thousands of infections. Now authorities in Singapore have arrested 21 people who are thought to be connected to an unregistered local chapter of that sect.
“In spite of the actions taken, the local SCJ chapter has resumed its activities covertly, under the direction of its South Korean parent chapter,” the Home Affairs Ministry said, adding that the Singaporean government “will not allow members of unlawful societies or persons associated with them to threaten Singapore’s public safety, peace and good order.” If convicted, the 12 women and nine men could face up to three years in prison, along with a fine.
More than 5,200 of South Korea’s nearly 28,000 coronavirus cases have been linked to the church. The biggest cluster arose in a branch in the southern city of Daegu after infections spiked in late February. While health authorities have used an aggressive test-and-quarantine program to contain the outbreak there and in nearby towns, the country has since seen a resurgence of the virus in other parts of the country, including its capital, Seoul.
Your questions answered
Today’s question comes from a reader who wants to know: Is it better to wash my hands with warm water rather than cold water?
As it turns out, the water’s temperature doesn’t really matter. That’s according to Donald W. Schaffner, a food microbiologist at Rutgers University who has spent two decades studying handwashing.
“Our research as well as the research of others has shown that water temperature really makes very little difference,” Schaffner says. “It’s mostly about comfort, so people should use a water temperature that is comfortable.”
I asked him why temperature isn’t a factor in cleanliness.
“For the water to get hot enough where it would actually start to kill germs, it would be so hot it would burn your hands,” he explained. “Soaps can be formulated to work at a variety of temperatures, and most of the differences between people have to do with technique, so any minor differences from water temperature are not statistically significant.”
So there you have it. Turn on that tap, find your inner Goldilocks and wash those hands at whatever temperature feels just right.
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