[NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect this afternoon’s announcement that the FDA has now approved use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID19 vaccine in children ages 12-15.]
With COVID-19 cases still trending downwward, both locally and county-wide, pandemic news is still very good. As we reported last week, Los Angeles is now in the Yellow (or lowest risk) tier for virus transmission, which has allowed bars to re-open for indoor service (at limited capacities), and other businesses to increase capacities.
And the raw numbers are good, too. Daily counts of new cases in LA County ranged from a low of just 255 on Monday to a high of 421 on Friday, while hospitalizations never topped 400, and daily death reports ranged from a low of 0 last Monday (partially due to slow weekend reporting) to a high of just 21 on Wednesday.
And other measures held up as well. For example, case rates were down not only county-wide, but (after a couple of weeks of upticks) dropped in our local neighborhoods, too:
County-wide sewage testing (which doesn’t depend on the number of people requesting COVID) showed a similar downward trend in levels of the virus:
On the vaccine front, the number of vaccinated individuals continues to rise, both locally and county-wide, with 40.9% of LA County residents now fully vaccinated, and 58.2% having had at least one dose of the vaccine.
And the numbers are looking even better in our local neighborhoods, where vaccination totals are once again up about 10% since the last reporting period two weeks ago:
In the one less-than-great bit of news this week, city and county officials have noticed an overall slowdown in vaccination rates over the last couple weeks, and in an effort to keep the numbers rising, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti announced yesterday that all city-run vaccination sites will now be appointment-free – residents can just walk in at any time and request a vaccination. And according to a story in the LA Times yesterday, available doses are plentiful: “The city is prepared to give out about 255,000 shots this week and expects to receive 42,000 doses of Moderna vaccine, 54,000 of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and 27,000 of Johnson & Johnson vaccine.”
Vaccination numbers should get another big boost soon, though, after today’s announcement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has now been approved for emergency use in children ages 12-15 years old. According to a story in the Los Angeles Times today, there are about 18 million kids that age in the U.S., and they constitute about 5% of the population. But vaccinating this group in particular should make a big difference in the percentage of school age children that can be vaccinated before the new school year begins in September. “Now you are getting to a point where you can say all high schoolers are eligible for the vaccine,” said Dr. David Dowdy, an infectious disease epidimiologist at Johns Hopkins University, quoted in the Times story. “Even if a few don’t get it, you can feel much more comfortable that opening up schools is not creating outbreaks in the making.”
Finally, speaking of schools, LAUSD School Superintendent Austin Beutner said in his weekly address this morning that while elementary school students are greatly enjoying school playgrounds, which re-opened last week, there are a couple of concerning trends emerging from the district’s recent campus re-openings.
First, he said, in the elementary grades, where children receive most of their instruction from their own teachers in their own classrooms, many more affluent families have opted to return to in-person instruction, while many lower families are staying home. “Elementary schools have higher in-person enrollment in more affluent communities,” Beutner said. “In West Los Angeles, for example, where the median household incomes exceed $115,000, close to 70% of elementary school students have returned to campus for in-person learning. In Bell, incomes are about $44,000 and less than 20% are at schools.”
In high schools, however, where students spend most of their school day in a single advisory classroom, continuing to receive online-only instruction from most of their teachers, Beutner reported that “we see the opposite – more students from lower-income communities returning to school in-person than their peers in higher income communities. In Huntington Park, where the median income is about $44,000, 12% of high school students have returned to in-person learning, while in Woodland Hills, with incomes of nearly $100,000, only 5% have returned.”
Beutner said the District is working hard to ensure the safety of all students, and last week provided more than 120,000 COVID tests at local schools, with only 15 students and two staff members on campuses testing positive. Meanwhile, Beutner said 15 school-based vaccination clinics have now opened, in communities “most impacted by the virus,” with more to come as more vaccine doses become available. The school site vaccinations are already available to students ages 16-18, he said, and will be made available to students ages 12-15, too, as soon as vaccines become available for that age group.
“The availability of vaccines for children ages 12-18 is an important part of the path to recovery in schools,” Beutner said. “Ninety percent of the people on a school campus at any point in time are children. Herd immunity won’t be reached in schools or in the broader community until children are vaccinated.”
“Our aim is to bring access to the vaccine to every middle and high school in Los Angeles Unified as soon as we can. Our schools serve almost 650,000 students and there is no better place to provide vaccinations to school children than at a local neighborhood school.”
The goal, Beutner said, is to eventually be able to provide vaccinations at every school, and “mobile vaccination teams will visit each school on a predetermined schedule to administer doses of the vaccine to students.”
Finally, Beutner said today that he hopes more than 70% of district students will return to campus when the new school year starts in August, and that record levels of additional funding, from both the state and federal governments, will be used to implement what he refers to as a “Marshall Plan” for re-opening schools. “The additional funds will allow schools to add reading and math teachers in elementary schools to help students build a foundation in literacy, math and critical-thinking skills. Secondary schools can add more teachers to reduce class sizes. Children in schools will benefit from additional mental health services while students with learning differences and disabilities will receive more direct supports. For the first time in decades, there is sufficient funding to do all of this. Staff have been preparing to implement these plans for months and they’ll be bringing to the Board in May specific actions in all of these areas to add teachers and staff to schools to provide more direct services to students.”
Of course, one thing Beutner did not accomplish, which he had previously lobbied for, was a two-week extension of the school year, which the LAUSD board did not vote to support. “The school district recently adopted a school calendar consistent with prior years without any additional days for students at schools,” Beutner said…but he added that “I hope this issue can be revisited once students and staff are back in schools in August. At that time, stakeholders will have a more clear picture of student needs and the opportunity will still exist to amend the calendar at the district level or for an individual school to add more time in a classroom to help students recover.”