Los Angeles County on Saturday surpassed 1 million coronavirus cases since reporting its first infection nearly a year before and also recorded its first instance of a new, more contagious variant of the virus that was initially identified in the United Kingdom.
The variant, B.1.1.7, had previously been found in California’s San Diego and San Bernardino counties, as well as 14 other U.S. states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is not believed to make people sicker or increase their risk of death but appears to spread more easily, raising fears it could hamper efforts to bring the pandemic under control if it displaces other strains and becomes dominant in the region.
Officials believe the variant has been present in L.A. County for some time and is already spreading in the community. The person found to have contracted it is a man who recently spent time in L.A. County but has since traveled to Oregon, where he is currently isolated, officials said. Quest Laboratories in Washington confirmed the discovery, officials said.
Health experts have been worried for some time that the new strain will bring even more challenges to a region that has become an epicenter of COVID-19 in America, pushing hospitals to the brink and infecting an estimated 1 in 3 county residents since the beginning of the pandemic.
Officials hope that rapid vaccination be a weapon against the new strain, which a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Friday said will show “rapid growth in early 2021, becoming the predominant variant in March.”
“The presence of the U.K. variant in Los Angeles County is troubling, as our healthcare system is already severely strained with more than 7,500 people currently hospitalized,” Barbara Ferrer, the county public health director, said in a statement.
The new milestone comes as COVID-19 cases have begun to flatten both in the county and other parts of California, though conditions in hospitals remain critical. L.A. County recorded 13,291 new cases of the virus and 237 related deaths Saturday, according to The Times’ tally, bringing its total to 1,003,923 cases and 13,741 deaths.
“Our community is bearing the brunt of the winter surge, experiencing huge numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, five times what we experienced over the summer,” Ferrer said. “This more contagious variant makes it easier for infections to spread at worksites, at stores, and in our homes.”
The discovery added even more urgency to officials’ race to vaccinate as many people as possible before the variant took hold. The process has been complicated by California’s decentralized public health system in which local public health departments, already tasked with the immense amount of work associated with testing and contact tracing, are also responsible for prioritizing and distributing the vaccine.
There have also been reports of vaccine shortages at the federal level.
Although Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday announced the state was expanding vaccine eligibility to include all those 65 and older, L.A. County is still working through vaccinating all of its eligible healthcare workers — those who have had direct or indirect exposure to patients or infectious materials. (Healthcare workers who don’t have routine in-person patient contact will be vaccinated during a later phase, officials have said.)
Late last year, firefighters were the first city workers given access to the shots. After an initial burst of activity, the number showing up to get the vaccine has plummeted.
The county public health department on Saturday issued a broad call for licensed healthcare workers — including medical doctors, doctors of osteopathy, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, licensed vocational nurses, dentists and pharmacists — to volunteer to vaccinate other healthcare workers during unpaid, 10-hour shifts at five “mega” distribution sites.
The sites are slated to open Tuesday at the Pomona Fairplex, the Forum in Inglewood, Cal State Northridge, the L.A. County Office of Education in Downey and Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, with appointments available each day through Feb. 14, the county said.
In addition, the city of L.A.’s Dodger Stadium vaccine site started administering doses Friday.
As of Thursday, healthcare workers in L.A. County had received more than 279,000 doses of vaccine, including more than 219,000 first doses and more than 60,000 second doses, officials said, but they estimated that roughly 450,000 healthcare workers still needed to be vaccinated.
County public health officials have said they expect that all eligible healthcare workers will receive their first dose in the next two weeks, and that they’ll be able to move on to the next phase of vaccinations in early February. Those eligible in the next phase include people 65 and older, as well as those who work in education, child care, emergency services or food and agriculture and face risk of exposure.
Long Beach, which has its own public health department, moved onto that next phase Friday, with Mayor Robert Garcia and other critical city employees receiving the vaccine. Others who are newly eligible included police officers and those 65 and older.
That came after the city vaccinated roughly 15,000 healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities, Garcia said in a news release.
Next week, Long Beach will open clinics to vaccinate grocery workers and has scheduled clinics to vaccinate educators the following week, the release said.
Other counties, including Riverside and Orange, have also begun to vaccinate those 65 and older and essential workers in certain sectors.
But there are reports that appointments have been difficult to obtain.
About 4 p.m. Wednesday, Riverside County opened 5,600 appointments for vaccination clinics taking place Thursday through Sunday at Corona High School, Heritage High School in Menifee, San Gorgonio Middle School in Beaumont, the Indio Fairgrounds and Diamond Stadium in Lake Elsinore. The Diamond Stadium clinic was exclusively for people 65 and older.
All of the appointments were booked by 7 p.m., spokeswoman Brooke Federico said.
On Friday, the county made available 11,000 more appointments through Jan. 22, and the spots filled up in roughly two hours, she said.
On top of that, the county said it had received only enough vaccine from the state to cover the clinics operating through the weekend.
“As of right now, we have 14,346 doses in our hands as public health and that is just enough to get through the vaccine clinics we have planned Sunday,” Kim Saruwatari, the county public health director, said Friday at a livestreamed meeting with county officials. “And by the end of Sunday, we should be pretty close to out of vaccine as a public health department.”
An additional 100,479 doses have been either administered or sent to healthcare providers to be administered over the next few days, she said. By contrast, the county estimates that more than 700,000 residents are currently eligible to receive the vaccine.
Saruwatari said the county typically gets weekly shipments from the state of about 35,000 to 40,000 doses, but the allotment is not exact or regular.
“And so that is one of the challenges that makes planning very difficult,” she said. “We don’t know when vaccine will be arriving with certainty and we don’t know how much we’ll be getting at any given time with any level of certainty.”
Health officials set aside carefully considered plans for rolling out COVID-19 vaccines and made the shots widely available. That may hasten the pandemic’s end.
Orange County this week opened a large-scale vaccine distribution center at Disneyland and said it plans to eventually open four others. But the volume of people trying to get an appointment quickly overloaded the system, County Supervisor Andrew Do said this week. He encouraged people to keep trying.
The vaccination site, along with two smaller ones, earlier in the week were overwhelmed by people who showed up without appointments, which led to them “effectively shutting down” for a time on Tuesday, the county said.
The platform for scheduling new appointments, Othena.com, was being updated regularly to address technical issues, said Jessica Good, public information manager for the county health department.
More than 256,000 people had registered through the site as of Saturday — an average of 12,000 registrations an hour — and more than 30,000 of them had been vaccinated, she said. Good added that more appointments would become available as the county received more vaccine.
Orange County has about 450,000 residents who are 65 and older, plus 250,000 critical and healthcare workers and first responders, but has been allocated just 170,000 doses so far, Good said. Of those, 80% have gone to hospitals and large healthcare providers, she said.
In a reminder that a single shot of the vaccine doesn’t confer full immunity, U.S. Rep. Lou Correa, who represents the 46th Congressional District covering parts of Orange County, announced Saturday he had tested positive for the virus the day before — even though he received his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine Dec. 19.
“I now join more than 200,000 Orange County residents who have been diagnosed with the virus,” Correa said Saturday in a statement.