As coronavirus surges out of control across California with an average of more than 31,000 cases reported a day, Gov. Gavin Newsom applauded Monday as he watched an intensive care unit nurse in Los Angeles receive one of the first doses of vaccine in the state.
Newsom noted that the first doses to arrive in California roughly matched the number of cases the state was seeing each day. He said that the arrival of the Pfizer vaccine marked a turning point.
“We are in the midst of the worst moment of this pandemic, so today is hopeful," Newsom said. “There is light at the end of the tunnel but ... we’re still in the tunnel.”
The COVID-19 vaccine couldn’t have come soon enough with hospitals facing an onslaught of patients, ICUs in jeopardy of being overwhelmed in most of the state and additional hospital beds being set up in an arena, a gym and a convention center, among nearly a dozen overflow sites.
Newsom said the vaccine, which will first go to health care workers and nursing home patients, will not arrive soon enough to help slow the current wave of cases that have exploded since November. He urged people to continue to wear masks and maintain distances from others.
Most of the state’s residents are living under a modified stay-home order that Newsom said was having some impact on slowing spread of the virus.
The state received the first 33,000 doses from Pfizer that were also distributed Monday to hospitals in San Francisco, San Diego and Eureka on the North Coast, Newsom said. About 300,000 more doses are scheduled to be distributed to 24 hospitals Tuesday and five on Wednesday. Nearly 400,000 additional doses are expected next week.
California expects to have more than 2 million doses by the end of the year, Newsom said. That would still fall short of inoculating all of the roughly 2.5 million health care workers in the state.
During a photo opportunity that preceded his news conference, Newsom stood a few feet away as two nurses, an emergency room doctor, a cleaning employee and respiratory therapy worker were vaccinated one at a time.
“Protect me,” ICU nurse Helen Cordova said as a colleague rolled up the right sleeve of her scrubs and jabbed her in the shoulder to a round of applause from Newsom, Mayor Eric Garcetti and other workers who gathered for the cheerful event.
Cordova said she had initially been reluctant to get the vaccine, but changed her mind after discussing it with colleagues, reading research about it and considering the misery she's witnessed at work where even some patients who recovered have struggled.
“Everything I’ve been seeing in our unit, just, you know, the patients that are dying alone,” she said. “Some will say, ‘well, the mortality rate is not as high,’ but the aftermath of: you got better, but now you’re dealing with all of this? ... That really convinced me that this vaccine will help prevent that."
Newsom said the next month to six weeks will be challenging in bringing down the number of cases as the number of vaccines increase.
The current surge is part of a trend that began in early November and grew after Thanksgiving. The percentage of people testing positive has gone from 3.5% six weeks ago to over 10%.
Los Angeles County, the most populous with a quarter of the state's 40 million residents, expects to get through the Thanksgiving surge in the next 10 days and see more stable numbers, Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said at a briefing.
The big fear is that it could be followed by a spike of people traveling or gathering for Christmas and New Year's, she said, urging people to stay home and avoid travel.
“If you’re not playing by the rules of public life at this point, you’re part of the problem,” Ferrer said. "And you’re contributing to the distressing increases that we see in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.”
Los Angeles, which has had a disproportionately large number of cases and deaths, issued a stay-home order last month after closing restaurant dining.
Newsom, who was the first governor in the U.S. to issue a statewide stay-home order in March, soon followed up with his own modified order that shuttered several types of businesses, ended restaurant dining and limited capacity in stores in most of the state when ICU capacity dwindled below 15%.
Some San Francisco Bay Area counties, which haven’t dropped below that threshold, voluntarily followed the order, leaving mostly just rural Northern California areas under less strict rules.
Newsom said the order was having some success, as measured by cell phone tracking data, though he provided no specifics.
Beyond health care workers, state officials are discussing prioritizing vaccines for teachers and farmworkers and grocery store employees who provide an essential service.
Newsom said he was not afraid of getting vaccinated but would not use his position to score an early dose.
“I’m not cutting the line,” he said.
Associated Press journalists Ryan Pearson, John Antczak and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles, Janie Har in San Francisco and Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento contributed.