Coronavirus cases plummet to pre-Thanksgiving levels. Are more reopenings next?

Coronavirus infections have plummeted to pre-Thanksgiving levels in California, bringing renewed optimism that a wider reopening of the still-shackled economy may be just around the corner.

In a sign of how quickly conditions have improved following the devastating winter surge, Gov. Gavin Newsom hinted that more counties may emerge next week from what the state calls the purple tier — the strictest of California’s four-rung reopening roadmap for businesses and other public spaces.

“The good news — parts of the state are already beginning to open back up,” he said Tuesday. “Business is already starting to take shape — modified, nonetheless. We’re working hard to get our kids back in school.”

Even reverting to the tiered system is itself a sign of progress. The coronavirus was so rampant statewide as of a month ago that the framework remained on the shelf for much of California in favor of expansive regional stay-at-home orders.

All those orders were lifted in late January. Counties can gradually relax pandemic-related restrictions once their COVID-19 case and testing positivity rates hit certain state-set benchmarks.

As it stands, 52 of California’s 58 counties remain in the most restrictive purple tier, meaning that indoor operations remain suspended or severely limited at many businesses and other public facilities.

Three counties — Del Norte, Mariposa and Plumas — have progressed to the less-stringent red tier, and another three — Trinity, Sierra and Alpine — have gone a step further, into the orange tier.

The most lenient yellow category remains empty at this point.

This week, Plumas County became the latest to move out of the purple tier, and Newsom said Tuesday that he expects that trend to continue.

“I anticipate a substantial number next week and even more in the subsequent weeks,” he said during an event to mark the opening of a new COVID-19 vaccination site at Cal State Los Angeles.

That’s all dependent on whether the current trend lines continue, though. While health officials have cheered the state’s collective progress, they’ve continued to warn that California isn’t out of the woods yet — and that adherence to infection-prevention protocols such as wearing masks in public and avoiding crowded settings, particularly indoors, remains a must.

“I’m always optimistic, but I’m also always cautious about the optimism,” Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Tuesday.

Over the last week, California has reported an average of 8,087 new coronavirus cases per day — a level not seen since mid-November, according to data compiled by The Times.

That rolling average is down 53% from two weeks ago. The decline is even more dramatic when considering the worst peaks of the winter surge, when the state was recording nearly 45,000 cases a day.

The rate at which coronavirus tests are confirming infection has also nosedived — falling to 3.5% as of Tuesday. Just a few weeks ago, that statewide positivity rate was nearly 15%.

As new infections fall, so too do the number of people being hospitalized for COVID-19.

On Monday, 8,459 coronavirus-positive patients were hospitalized statewide. That’s the lowest total since Nov. 30, and down more than 60% from the height of the surge.

The story is much the same in California’s intensive care units, which were at times so deluged with COVID-19 patients that some officials openly wondered whether supplies and staff would be stressed to the point that care would need to be rationed.

Now, 2,487 COVID-19 patients are in California’s ICUs — a number not seen since early December.

Much of the credit for the recent declines, officials say, rests with residents and businesses who committed to following public health guidance, including by avoiding risky gatherings with those they don’t live with, properly wearing face coverings when outside their homes and, in the case of businesses, modifying their operations to enhance safety.

“We do appreciate all the efforts everyone made to get us back to slowing the spread, and it’s our firmest hope that this continues,” Ferrer said. “We all have learned that this in large part depends on the actions of businesses and individuals as we wait for there to be enough vaccine doses for everyone in our communities.”

That’s not to say the crisis has completely abated, however. Despite the steep decreases, hospitals are still caring for more coronavirus-positive patients than they did at any point prior to the latest surge.

“It is so much better today than it was just a month ago,” L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said Tuesday. “But even this level today in Los Angeles is triple, quadruple what it was at our lowest point in this pandemic.”

And the human cost of COVID-19, though also on the decline, still remains high. Over the last week, an average of 357 Californians have died from COVID-19 a day — pushing the pandemic’s total death toll past 47,500.

However, progress is not an inevitability, and officials and experts warn that California could easily change course if too many people or businesses eschew public health guidance.

Another worry is the documented presence of coronavirus variants in California — including one first identified in Britain that is believed to be 50% more transmissible and another first found in South Africa that has health officials concerned because the current COVID-19 vaccines are generally believed to be less effective against it.

More infectious variants, a still-limited vaccine rollout and the potential for increased intermingling as more businesses and public spaces reopen could combine to trigger yet another coronavirus wave in the spring, some experts warn.

One of the ways to stave off that possibility, officials say, is for residents and businesses to protect themselves, their loved ones and their patrons by following public health protocols.

“I do not believe that we should accept the inevitability of there being another surge,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious-disease expert, said during an appearance on “L.A. Times Today” this week. “We can prevent that by very carefully adhering to the public health measures that we speak about all the time — the universal masking, by doing physical distancing, by avoiding congregate settings, particularly indoor.”

“It could happen,” he continued later, “but it’s within our power to prevent it.”

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