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COVID-19 Vaccination Access Expands; Officials Still Concerned About Variants

California Governor Gavin Newsom receives his dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine from Dr. Mark Ghaly in Los Angeles, California on April 1, 2021.
PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images
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LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Californians aged 50 and older became eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations today — adding about 1.4 million Los Angeles County residents to the pool of people trying to get appointments that will remain limited until vaccine supply expands, which officials hope will occur by the end of April.

One person who had no trouble getting an appointment was Gov. Gavin Newsom, who visited Los Angeles Thursday morning and was administered the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine by Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state's Health and Human Services secretary.

"Today's an important day, obviously, with the opportunity now for people my age that have been waiting — 18 million shots later," the 53-year-old governor said as he was being administered the vaccine at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. "We've administered over 18 million doses. We started this process in December and finally we're here for people that are in my age bracket.

" ... It's an opportunity to remind people that they're eligible, everybody in California 50 and over," he said. " ... It's also an opportunity to highlight the Johnson & Johnson vaccines that are now coming in, despite some of the headlines. They are arriving here nonetheless here in the state and all across the United States."

According to county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, there are an estimated 2 million people aged 50 and up in the county, but health officials estimate about 631,000 of them have already received at least one vaccine dose by qualifying in another eligible category. But that still means another 1.4 million people will be eligible and hunting for appointments.

"So we do ask both those currently eligible and those that will be newly eligible to be patient as supply increases," she said. Getting an appointment will become more difficult April 15, when everyone aged 16 and up becomes eligible for the shots. That group includes an estimated 5 million people, although about 1 million are believed to have already received at least one dose, Ferrer said.

She stressed that the age-based categories of eligibility are reserved for county residents only. Categories of essential workers eligible for the shots were open to people who worked in the county, regardless of residence.

The county last week officially crossed the 4 million mark in total COVID-19 doses administered. According to the Department of Public Health, a total of 4,013,521 doses had been administered in the county as of last Saturday. That includes 1,323,686 second doses, equating to the number of people who are now fully vaccinated.

"This does translate to tens of thousands of people having an extra layer of protection from serious illness and death due to COVID-19," Ferrer said. " ... While we still have a lot of work to do, I do hope we can all take a moment to be proud of what L.A. County has accomplished in really a little more than three months."

The county this week received its highest vaccine allocation to date, at 378,400, and that total does not include doses that were distributed directly by the federal government to some providers, such as pharmacies, health centers and the federally operated site at Cal State Los Angeles.

But despite that increase, the county still receives far short of the supply it has the capacity to administer, often leading to a shortage of appointments.

Ferrer expressed confidence that vaccine supplies will continue to improve, with the county projecting a total of 700,000 doses per week will be dispatched to the county by the end of April.

"If L.A. County receives on average 576,000 doses a week, starting in April, we can expect to reach 80% vaccine coverage for people 16 and older in just 12 more weeks. Reaching such a milestone is possible with increased allocations, and it will dramatically change the trajectory of the pandemic here in L.A. County."

The county is already working to expand its ability to administer more doses, with the goal of being able to dole out 1 million doses per week.

Despite the growing optimism provided by the vaccination effort, health officials continue to express concern about the spread of COVID-19 variants that are more infectious and have been increasing their presence in California and beyond. And with the opening of more businesses with fewer restrictions due to the county's move next week to the orange tier of the state's COVID economic blueprint, officials are stressing the need for continued vigilance and adherence to infection-control measures.

Ferrer noted Wednesday that 30 U.S. states and territories are seeing increases in cases, and while she understands the desire of people to move beyond the pandemic, recent scenes of people flocking to beaches and Tuesday night's celebration by UCLA students following the university's NCAA tournament victory could lead to another surge.

"Clearly you know when you see overcrowding at beaches, you see events like we saw last night with students having huge parties and none of them really looked like (they were) wearing their masks, you created a lot of risk — risk for yourself, but unfortunately, risk for a lot of other people," she said.

"So these ... poor choices that people are making right now don't bode well for anybody in this country, they don't bode well for us here in L.A. County. They certainly don't bode well for residents in the rest of the country where, you know, it seems to be more common for some folks to not realize how important it is at this point in time to continue to take protections that still will save lives."

The county officially advanced to the orange tier of the state's Blueprint for a Safer Economy on Wednesday, but health officials won't be relaxing any rules until 12:01 a.m. Monday.

"We've learned from both our past and the pasts of others in other locations that a massive reopening without businesses being well-prepared, without the public being well-prepared and without us adding as many layers of protection as we can in modifying what happens at sites that are reopening, we can create situations where there's just too much spread again," Ferrer said Wednesday.

"So I wouldn't say we're going really slowly because we're moving along, I think, at a good rate in terms of our reopenings, but we're being careful. And we're taking time to work with our businesses, to work with consumers and customers so they understand how to really enjoy some of the new activities but continue to do so while taking a lot of safety precautions."

Ferrer said a revised Health Officer Order will be posted on Friday so business owners will be aware of all the new guidelines and have the weekend to adjust their operations accordingly. While the county is largely aligning with state guidelines for the orange tier, it will have some stricter requirements.

Most notably, bars will be limited to outdoor table service only, operating only from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., with a required 8-foot distance between outdoor tables. Although state guidelines allow a lifting of all capacity restrictions on retail establishments in the orange tier, Los AngelesCounty will impose a 75% limit for grocery stores and other retail operations, while "strongly" recommending they remain at 50% capacity until April 15 to allow time for more workers to get vaccinated.

In accordance with state guidelines, the county will raise the capacity limit from 25% to 50% for movie theaters, churches, museums, zoos, aquariums and restaurants. Fitness center capacity will be increased from 10% to 25%. Card rooms and family entertainment centers can resume indoor operations at 25% capacity.

The move also allows Dodger Stadium to increase fan capacity to 33%, up from the current 20%, while theme parks can expand capacity to 25%, up from 15%.

Breweries and wineries will be able to offer indoor service at 25% capacity. Breweries, wineries and bars will all be allowed to turn on their television sets outdoors, but live entertainment remains prohibited.

It was unclear if the county will continue to ban restaurants from turning on their television sets — a requirement imposed to prevent gatherings of sports fans.

Long Beach, which has its own health department, parted ways with the county and immediately moved to orange-tier rules on Wednesday. The city generally aligned with the state's guidelines, including the elimination of capacity limits at retail stores.

Pasadena, which also has its own health department, plans to follow the county's lead and wait until Monday before changing its restrictions.

The county on Thursday reported another 53 COVID-19 deaths, while Long Beach added two more, lifting the cumulative countywide total to 23,191.

Another 757 cases were also reported, while Long Beach and Pasadena both added five, giving the county a cumulative total from throughout the pandemic of 1,220,256.

According to state figures, there were 634 people hospitalized in the county due to COVID-19, down from 652 on Wednesday. There were 165 people in intensive care as of Thursday, down from 166 Wednesday.

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