On Friday afternoon, as the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors met behind closed doors to discuss new, stricter shutdown orders; as Mayor Eric Garcetti and California Governor Governor Gavin Newsom appeared together to try and jumpstart the region’s lagging vaccination efforts; one key reason for the urgency of those efforts became clear.
Earlier in the day the Centers for Disease Control released its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The report revealed new modeling on the spread of B.1.1.7, also known as the U.K. variant of Covid-19, which is estimated to be 50% more transmissible than previous strains.
According to the CDC, “In this model, B.1.1.7 prevalence is initially low, yet because it is more transmissible than are current variants, it exhibits rapid growth in early 2021, becoming the predominant variant in March.” The results of that predominance is that “B.1.1.7 drives a substantial change in the transmission trajectory and a new phase of exponential growth” in total Covid-19 cases. Given that, the report warns, “Efforts to prepare the health care system for further surges in cases are warranted.”
Dr. Paul Simon, Chief Science Officer of the L.A. County Department of Public Health, said on Friday that the CDC modeling “indicates that there is quite a bit of cause for concern. That this strain does have the potential to spread very very quickly in the country and potentially — because it has so many mutations — impact out tests ability to identify it.”
B.1.1.7 has already been identified in San Diego and San Bernardino, and L.A. Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said this week that residents should assume it’s in Los Angeles, as well. “Current projections by the experts predict that if left unchecked, this variant could dominate locally by March,” said Ferrer.
During that same media briefing, Ferrer would not rule out the possibility of additional health restrictions being imposed, particularly in light of still high Covid infection numbers, hospitalizations and deaths.
The Department of Public Health confirmed 258 new deaths on Friday, marking the fourth straight day of 250+ fatalities due to the pandemic. That means L.A. County as seen over 1,000 Covid-related deaths in the past four days. Hospitalizations and ICU beds occupied by virus-impacted patients remained near record levels. To date, the county has seen 989,928 positive cases of Covid and a total of 13,489 deaths. The county is likely to record top 1 million total cases this weekend.
Ferrer urged residents to continue adhering to existing health restrictions, while suggesting more may be needed.
“We should be prepared to do more if cases remain high,” she said on Wednesday. “The work ahead requires us to take every action necessary to reduce transmission.”
Her words presaged the CDC guidance issued on Friday. It reads: “The increased transmissibility of the B.1.1.7 variant warrants rigorous implementation of public health strategies to reduce transmission and lessen the potential impact of B.1.1.7, buying critical time to increase vaccination coverage.” See Garcetti and Newsom’s Friday appearance above. However, according to the CDC, “Increased transmissibility also means that higher than anticipated vaccination coverage must be attained to achieve the same level of disease control to protect the public compared with less transmissible variants.”
Thursday night, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti addressed possible new business closures or other restrictions and said, “That’s something I know that the county is looking at.”
Asked about the businesses that may be impacted, Garcetti said, “I think it’s the obvious categories: Whether schools stay open or not, indoor gyms, public youth leagues.”
The mayor said that given the potential danger of the UK variant of the virus, “we have to always be open and I will always follow the science and the advice of our public health [leaders] … and the county supervisors, who I know are making very difficult decisions and are incredible leaders right now trying to figure out whether or not there should be further closures.”
“But the moment it [the transmission rate] goes up, like we saw in December, at any pace like that, that is absolutely something we cannot sustain, and most importantly, our hospitals cannot, and we would move into crisis mode there,” he said.
Dr. Simon stressed, however, that health restrictions imposed by the county are only effective if people actually adhere to them.
“We’ve closed an awful lot here, and the public is just plain exhausted, I think,” he said. “And we’ve seen less adherence to the restrictions…We can implement additional restrictions but unless they’re adhered to, they’re not going to have the desired impact. We’re not a police state. It would be very difficult to use some of the extreme measures that have been done in other countries.”
He implored people to adhere to restrictions as much as possible and continue to do what they can to minimize their risk of infection.
“Even if people can’t do everything all the time, try to minimize the risk,” he said. “It’s hard to deal in absolutes — never leave your home … or never see anybody outside your household. That’s a difficult message.”
Ultimately, he said, “We’re just urging people to hang in there. We’re moving in a favorable path with the vaccine.”
One piece of good news in the CDC report is that, in modeling, “after B.1.1.7 becomes the dominant variant, its transmission was substantially reduced.” That may, however, be because everyone already has it.