After last week’s big announcements about local restrictions easing in several ways (including CA Governor Gavin Newsom lifting the regional Stay at Home order we’d been under since December, and the LA County Department of Health allowing restaurants to re-open for outdoor dining this past Friday), the COVID-19 news has been a bit quieter in the last few days…which has left some room to take a breather, peruse some other kinds of coronavirus-related information, and get some perspective on the ongoing – and, yes, very much still raging – pandemic.
Trends in the Right Direction
First of all, the good news is that reports of new cases in LA County are continuing to drop, as they have been for the last couple of weeks. In fact, yesterday’s numbers fell below 6,000 for the first time in a long time (and are quite far down from highs approaching 20,000 just a few weeks ago). Test positivity, hospitalization, and deaths are also trending down, which is even better news.
So Now What?
But even though trends are moving in the right direction, and restaurants and some other businesses have been allowed to resume some types of previously restricted services, it doesn’t mean things can’t take a turn for the worse again.
For example, it’s important to note that even with the recent improvements, LA County is still quite firmly in the Purple tier in the state’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy,” which indicates we still have “widespread” risk of infections, with the 7-day average of daily COVID-19 cases per 100K still above 7.0, and a test positivity rate above 8%. And LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner reiterated in his weekly address today that all school staff and teachers should be considered frontline workers and be vaccinated before re-opening schools for in-person instruction – a goal that’s still quite a way off.
Also, as we learned last week, just because restaurants are now allowed to jump back into outdoor service, some of our Larchmont-area restaurants are taking a pretty cautious approach to resuming outdoor dining, whether out of caution or simply fatigue from the back and forth of changing rules over the last year. And that might not be a bad idea, since it now appears that restaurant closures may have helped the recent flattening of the curve.
According to a story in the LA Times today, slow improvements in infection rates started to show up within a couple of weeks of the order that closed restaurants to in-person dining in December, which indicates that the lockdown did exactly what it was supposed to do. According to the Times story:
“In Los Angeles County, the stay-at-home orders and a ban on outdoor dining were followed by a drop in the transmission rate — a measure known as “R” that reflects how many people a sick person on average infects — from 1.2 before the orders to 0.85 by early January. Anything above 1.0 means an outbreak will grow exponentially.
In other words, within roughly two weeks of the new orders in late November, the county began to turn the corner. Because of the many weeks of lag time between new infections and hospitalizations, the effects of the stay-at-home orders would only become apparent a month later, in early January, when hospitalizations finally began to decline.
“You did the right thing at the right time,” [Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington] said. “The winter is working against all of us, but at least you preempted a much bigger surge of cases by doing what you did.”
And this raises the question of whether infection rates and other indicators will begin to rise again over the next couple of weeks, now that people can return to outdoor dining and other activities such as getting haircuts.
Also, while outdoor dining is now allowed, there’s the question of whether restaurants and patrons will fully abide by the still fairly restrictive rules (which have now reverted back to the County’s December 29 rules for Social Distancing)…and, in fact, whether or not people are even aware of some of those rules. For example, according to a January 29 LA Times story, the current guidelines include directives that:
- Outdoor dining and wine service must be limited to 50% capacity
- Tables must be at least eight feet apart
- Seating is limited to a maximum of six people per table
- Businesses should avoid seating people together if they’re not from the same household.
So, no, you still can’t really go meet your all friends and/or co-workers for coffee, drinks or dinner. At least legally.
And, yes, while small private gatherings (of less than 15 people) are officially allowed again, too, the County is still urging people to stay home whenever possible, and not to gather with people outside their own households, or at least not outside their very carefully controlled social bubbles of 1 or 2 other households.
The Surge Picture
The reason for continued caution, of course, is that if people don’t continue to be careful – especially with several new virus strains making inroads – it’s quite possible we will find ourselves in yet another surge situation…and we now have a pretty good picture of what that looks like.
In fact, it’s worth noting that January was the pandemic’s deadliest month so far. And that includes our local neighborhoods. The graphics below show our cumulative locas case and death counts at the end of December (i.e. for the first 10-11 months of the pandemic)…and those same numbers today, after just 34 days of pretty intense surges. And the percentage increases in both cases and deaths are pretty stark – in many neighborhoods the cumulative totals increased between 50% and 100% of the totals for the previous 11 months, in just a bit over one month:
Another interesting view of our current situation is provided in today’s New York Times, where staff created an interactive map showing infection rates in the various neighborhoods of Los Angeles. The map quite clearly shows that infections corellate in an inverse relationship to population density and income. So many of our fairly privileged Buzz-area neighborhoods (where people have more space per person, and often the option to work from home) have a much lower share of infections than do denser, lower income neighborhoods to the south and east, where the number of people per square foot in many residences is much higher, and many blue collar workers must go to their job sites. (The lighter the color on the map below, the lower the percentage of people infected in each neighborhood. Click on the map to go to the fully interactive version.)
And how this unpleasant reality can play out was quite dramatically illustrated in yet another story from the LA Times, also on January 29, which tells the story of a man and his four adult children living in a one-bedroom apartment in south LA, and how they were defenseless when the illness hit their family. (Because there was no way to isolate from each other, every member of the family got sick, two were hospitalized, and the father died from his infection.)
So while things do seem to be moving in a good direction right now, it’s good to take a moment to remember that we’ve only just begun to turn a corner, and recent gains could be lost again if people don’t continue to stay home as much as possible, wear masks when outside the home, and maintain safe distances from others at all times. At least until infection rates drop quite a bit further…and vaccination rates continue to rise significantly.