More transmissible COVID strain recorded in California
The first case of the more highly transmissible strain of the deadly virus that causes COVID-19 has been recorded in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Dec. 30.
Newsom made the announcement during a livestreamed interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, noting that he had just received word around noontime of the confirmed case. The variant, also called strain B.1.1.7, infected an person in San Diego County, the California Department of Public Health said in a statement. The person does not have any known travel history.
Fauci, who sat down for a one-on-one virtual interview with Newsom, said he wasn't surprised. It's likely that more cases will be reported in California and in other U.S. states, considering the prominence of the variant in the United Kingdom, where it was first identified. Travelers between the two countries and travelers who arrive indirectly from the U.K. through other countries could also contribute to the spread, he said. The variant was first reported in the U.S. Dec. 29 in Colorado where there are now two confirmed cases as of Dec. 30.
"I don't think Californians should think this is something that's odd. This is something that's expected," Fauci said.
"It looks pretty clear" that the new strain more easily binds to receptors on human cells and is therefore more easily transmitted, Fauci said. U.K. health officials have said there's no indication that the new variant increases the virulence or spread of the disease — meaning it doesn't seem to make people more sick or increase mortality rates, he said. It also doesn't seem to evade antibodies from the new vaccines.
"People who have had COVID-19 don't seem to get reinfected by this," he said.
Ribonucleic acid (RNA) viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, are notorious for their ability to mutate, but most mutations are insignificant, he said.
California health officers urged public vigilance.
"The detection of the first case of this United Kingdom variant strain in California is concerning," state Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said in the statement. "As we learn more about how this patient contracted this strain, I want to stress the importance of continuing our mitigation efforts to prevent COVID-19 and this new strain. This includes masks, physical distance, and during this current surge in California, staying at home and not mixing outside households, and not traveling."
State administers 35% of vaccine doses to date
California has administered just 35% of the COVID-19 vaccine doses it has received to date, Newsom said Monday.
The state has received approximately 1.29 million doses of vaccine from the pharmaceutical company Pfizer and the biotechnology company Moderna, according to Newsom.
Of those, 454,306 have been administered as of Jan. 3 to health care workers and long-term care facility staff and residents. The yet-unused doses remain in storage units across the state.
Newsom called the lag in vaccine administration "not good enough" and noted anecdotal evidence of some health care workers turning down their chance to receive the vaccine, but did not have hard data on just how many doses have been refused as the vaccines have been rolled out.
"Regardless of those that are unwilling to take the shot — their right — we have plenty of people that want to take that shot," Newsom said, adding "we're trying to address that concern without putting people in a position where they feel like they've done the wrong thing."
The 11-county Bay Area has already received 298,305 doses of vaccine from both Pfizer and Moderna, according to the state's Department of Public Health.
More vaccine shipments are expected in the next week, including second doses for those that have already received a first vaccination.
The vaccination rollout will also begin expanding this month, according to Newsom, beyond the health care workers and long-term care facilities that were prioritized first.
People age 75 and older as well as education and child care, emergency services, food and agriculture workers will be eligible to receive the vaccine next.
Newsom and Ghaly said California is also working to make its vaccination schedule somewhat flexible in the event the number of refusals begins to pile up.
The two said that would allow those with a lower vaccination priority level such as people between the ages of 50 and 74 to get vaccinated earlier than they would normally be eligible for.
The state is "clarifying the guidance that is already out that gives those vaccination sites flexibility to make sure they aren't wasting any vaccine and then also continuing to add more description to how we make sure we have people lined up in the case that there's some extra doses," Ghaly said.
Newsom, previewing his proposed budget for the next fiscal year, said he intends to allocate some $300 million for vaccinations in the coming year with the intent of vaccinating millions of California residents.
However, both he and Ghaly said the vaccine distribution is still in its nascent stages and warned the state not to lower its guard.
"Even if 100% of the doses that California has received were in arms already, it would not be soon enough so we need to look forward to the vaccine and the solution that it's going to bring us as part of our mid-term and longer-term response but right now it's about reducing our individual and our community risk of transmission," Ghaly said.
Stay-at-home orders in effect until at least Jan. 8
State stay-at-home orders will remain in effect in the Bay Area until at least Friday, Jan. 8, with potential to extend depending on intensive care unit capacity projections, state health officials said Jan. 2.
The state's stay-at-home order is triggered when a region's average ICU capacity falls below 15%. The Bay Area's ICU capacity was at 5.9% as of Jan. 5, according to the California Department of Public Health.
The San Joaquin Valley, Southern California and greater Sacramento regions remain under the stay-at-home orders because their four-week ICU capacity projections do not meet the capacity to exit the order, the department said.
No announcement had been made on the status of the Bay Area order as of The Almanac's press deadline Wednesday afternoon, although health officials indicated that they expected it would be extended. Visit almanacnews.com for the latest information.
Dentists now allowed to administer COVID-19 vaccines
California dentists have been added to the state's army of medical providers who will now be able to administer COVID-19 vaccinations, according to an order by the director of the California Department of Consumer Affairs.
The order, which was signed on Jan. 4, takes effect immediately. It will allow the state's 36,000 dentists to administer the vaccine, which would hopefully help speed up administration of the vaccines.
"Dentists are ready, willing and able to help administer COVID-19 vaccinations to the public," California Dental Association President Judee Tippett-Whyte said in a statement released on Jan. 4. "We can help with surge capacity at clinics and vaccinations sites — wherever we're needed to quickly administer vaccinations and save lives."
Dentists are in a singular position to administer vaccines because they receive extensive training in anatomy, pathology, pharmacology and autoimmune response as part of their dental education, the association said.
"Additionally, dentists are already trained to provide injections in objectively more complex areas of the mouth that commonly have gag reflexes, major blood vessels, nerves and a moving tongue. Dentists already have the ability to practice outside of their traditional scope of practice during declared states of emergency under the implied or express direction of government entities. The DCA waiver establishes the necessary training dentists must complete through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that is specific to vaccine administration, contraindications and adverse reactions," according to the association.
The dentists would most likely administer the vaccines at hospitals, clinics and vaccination sites to be set up to meet the demand, the association said.
The new order fits under Newsom's March 4 state of emergency order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The state Department of Consumer Affairs director may waive statutory or regulatory professional licensing requirements and amend scopes of practice for people licensed under Division 2 of the Business and Professions Code, including dentists.
The order waives the code section where it prohibits licensed dentists from independently initiating and administering COVID-19 vaccines that are approved or authorized by the federal Food and Drug Administration to anyone 16 years of age or older and, in cases involving a severe allergic reaction, epinephrine or diphenhydramine by injection.
The waiver is subject to conditions. Dentists must successfully complete a series of COVID-19 training programs available through the CDC; comply with federal and state recordkeeping and reporting requirements; provide documentation to the patient's primary care provider; and enter information in the appropriate immunization registry designated by the immunization branch of the state Department of Public Health. Dentists are also required to give the vaccine in accordance with any FDA emergency use authorization.
Comprehensive COVID-19 coverage
View interactive charts tracking the spread of the coronavirus in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties online at paloaltoonline.atavist.com/tracking-the-coronavirus. Find a comprehensive collection of coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by The Almanac and its sister publications, Palo Alto Online, and the Mountain View Voice, at tinyurl.com/c19-Almanac.
CalMatters and Bay City News Service contributed to this report.
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