COVID in California: L.A. County to end emergency on March 31 – San Francisco Chronicle

California Gov. Gavin Newsom smiles after taking the oath of office on Jan. 6, 2023, outside the California Capitol in Sacramento.
UPDATE: Here are the latest updates on COVID in the Bay Area and California.
Los Angeles County supervisors voted unanimously to end the local COVID-19 emergency declarations at the end of the month on Tuesday, the same day Gov. Gavin Newsom officially ended California’s COVID-19 state of emergency, declaring “the conditions of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property … no longer exist.” Pfizer is asking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to clear the way for its bivalent booster for children under 5 years old. Britain’s former health minister said the government considered culling all pet cats in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Latest updates:
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted unanimously to end the local COVID-19 emergency declarations at the end of the month. But they warned that does not mean the pandemic is over. “COVID-19 is still with us,” Supervisor Hilda Solis said, according to ABC7. “No, we don’t want to abandon those tools that got us to this place… but with effective vaccines and testing abundantly available we can move on to the next phase of our response to COVID-19.”
The proclamation of a local emergency and proclamation of a local health emergency will expire on March 31. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said despite the end of the declarations, her agency will review existing health orders and some may stay in place. “A health officer always has authority to mitigate the impact of communicable diseases,” she said.
A former British health minister said the government considered culling all pet cats in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. James Bethell told Channel 4 News on Wednesday that there was serious concern that domestic cats could spread the novel coronavirus.
“What we shouldn’t forget is how little we understood about this disease. There was a moment we were very unclear about whether domestic pets could transmit the disease,” he said. “In fact, there was an idea at one moment that we might have to ask the public to exterminate all the cats in Britain. Can you imagine what would have happened if we had wanted to do that?” In July 2020, the government warned pet owners not to kiss their cats after a female Siamese became the first known animal in the U.K. to catch the disease, according to the Guardian
The revelation comes as Bethell’s boss, Matt Hancock, the country’s former health secretary, on Wednesday denied wrongdoing after a newspaper published extracts of more than 100,000 private messages he sent on WhatsApp in the first weeks of the pandemic. The Daily Telegraph said the exchanges show that he ignored scientific advice to test everyone entering nursing homes for COVID-19, leading to excess deaths. Hancock countered that the U.K. did not have the testing capacity. “The messages imply Matt simply overruled clinical advice. That is categorically untrue,” said a statement released by a spokesman. “He went as far as was possible, as fast as possible, to expand testing and save lives.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday officially ended California’s COVID-19 state of emergency with a signed proclamation, nearly three years to the day he issued the nation’s first statewide stay-at-home order on March 4, 2020. He declared “the conditions of extreme peril to the safety of persons and property … no longer exist.”
The governor’s office said the state will now embrace its endemic SMARTER Plan to deal with the next phase of the pandemic. It added that COVID-19 vaccines, testing, and treatment continue to be available at sites within local communities, at least for now. Newsom’s COVID-19 state of emergency accounted for 74 executive orders that included nearly 600 rules.
California reported more than 100,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic, but Newsom’s office noted that the state’s per capita death rate was among the lowest in the nation. “If California had Texas’ death rate, 27,000 more people would have died here,” it said in a fact sheet. “If California had Florida’s rate, 56,000 more people would have died here.” It added that the national COVID-19 death rate of 339 per 100,000 persons was far above California’s rate.
“People who lost their life to COVID, people who lost neighbors and loved ones, we lament and are still saddened by that,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s health and human services secretary, said in a statement. “But to get to this point where we feel prepared to lift the state of emergency to move forward, that’s a big deal for Californians across the state.”
Mothers who are vaccinated against COVID-19 during pregnancy pass off some protection to their newborns, according to a new study. Researchers analyzed health records for more than 30,000 babies born to members of Kaiser Permanente Northern California between December 2020 and May 2022, comparing the likelihood of positive COVID-19 tests for babies of mothers who received two or more doses of the vaccine during pregnancy with babies of mothers who were unvaccinated. They found that children of vaccinated mothers were better protected for at least six months after birth.
“Our analysis supports the continued value of vaccination during pregnancy in protecting not only the mother, but the child as well,” said lead author Ousseny Zerbo, a research scientist with the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research, in a statement. “Because babies under 6 months cannot currently be vaccinated against COVID-19, receiving this protection through their mothers in utero is very important.”During their first two months after they were born, the risk of a positive COVID-19 test was reduced by 84% for infants of vaccinated mothers during the delta period and 21% during omicron. But they found that protection waned over time in both periods. In the delta period, protection dipped to 62% at four months and 46% at six months. During the omicron period, the protection fell to 14% at four months and 13% at six months. The study was published in Nature Communications.
Overall, the risk of hospitalization for COVID-19 was significantly lower for children of vaccinated mothers than those of unvaccinated mothers.
“Even though the effectiveness of mRNA vaccines was less during the omicron period, the vaccines still provided some protection for infants against both infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and hospitalization,” said senior author Nicola Klein, director of the Kaiser Permanente Vaccine Study Center. “Maternal vaccination is the best way to protect infants under 6 months of age who are not yet old enough to be vaccinated.”
Pfizer and BioNTech said on Wednesday that they submitted an application to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration seeking emergency use authorization for their omicron-targeting bivalent COVID-19 vaccine in children 6 months through 4 years of age. The updated booster is currently authorized as the third dose of the three-dose primary series for children in this age group. The authorization of a booster dose would allow families to give their young children a fourth dose to better protect them against more recent sublineages of the virus. Last week, the companies asked the FDA for full approval of the updated shots as a primary course and a booster dose for people 12 years of age and above.
NBC’s “Today” show is without both of its hosts and addressed Hoda Kotb’s absence on the program Wednesday. Kotb is dealing with an unspecified “family health matter,” the show’s Craig Melvin said. She’d been absent from the network morning show last week and this week without any explanation, the Associated Press reports. Meanwhile, co-host Savannah Guthrie tested positive for COVID-19 when she wasn’t feeling well Tuesday, leaving mid-show. News anchor Melvin, Sheinelle Jones and Al Roker were on the set Wednesday. “We look forward to seeing Hoda and Savannah back here at the desk very, very soon,” Melvin said. There’s no specific estimate on when either might return, a “Today” spokeswoman said.
China’s state media is accusing Elon Musk of promoting a COVID-19 “conspiracy theory that slanders China.” The Global Times this week published an essay on social media criticizing the Twitter CEO for commenting on a tweet that pushes an unfounded conspiracy theory that Anthony Fauci, the former chief medical adviser to the White House, funded the creation of the coronavirus in a Chinese lab. “He did it via a pass-through organization (EcoHealth),” Musk said in his response.
The Communist Party paper said his comment, which followed media reports that the Energy Department had concluded the virus most likely leaked from a lab in Wuhan, fuels global anti-Chinese sentiment. “These remarks of his have been continuously used by those US right-wing and anti-China media hostile to China as material to frame China,” the publication said. Musk previously criticized Chinese officials for their “zero COVID” policies, noting they made business difficult for Tesla.  One of the company’s largest factories is in Shanghai.
China on Wednesday again dismissed U.S. suggestions that the COVID-19 pandemic may have been triggered by a virus that leaked from a Chinese laboratory. Responding to comments by FBI Director Christopher Wray, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said the involvement of the U.S. intelligence community was evidence enough of the “politicization of origin tracing,” according to the Associated Press. “By rehashing the lab-leak theory, the U.S. will not succeed in discrediting China, and instead, it will only hurt its own credibility,” Mao said. “We urge the U.S. to respect science and facts… stop turning origin tracing into something about politics and intelligence, and stop disrupting social solidarity and origins cooperation,” she said.
Mao on Tuesday insisted that China has been “open and transparent” in the search for the virus’ origins and has “shared the most data and research results on virus tracing and made important contributions to global virus tracing research.” A World Health Organization expert group said last year that “key pieces of data” to explain how the pandemic began were still missing.
Chinese officials also lashed out Wednesday at the new House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party dedicated to countering Beijing, demanding its members “discard their ideological bias and zero-sum Cold War mentality.” Ning added, they must “stop framing China as a threat by quoting disinformation, stop denigrating the Communist Party of China and stop trying to score political points at the expense of China-U.S. relations.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray, in his first public comments on the issue, affirmed the bureau’s assessment that the coronavirus “most likely” originated from a laboratory leak in Wuhan, China. In an interview with Fox News, he also accused the Chinese government of hampering U.S. agencies from investigating the pandemic origins.
“The FBI has for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan,” Wray said. His comments followed media accounts this week that the Department of Energy also concluded that the virus likely escaped from a lab. Four other U.S. intelligence agencies believe the virus was a result of natural transmission from animals to humans at a wet market. Two other agencies are undecided. “Let’s step back for a second,” Wray said. “The FBI has folks, agents, professionals, analysts, virologists, microbiologists, etc, who focus specifically on the dangers of biological threats, which include things like novel viruses like COVID and the concerns that they’re in the wrong hands, some bad guys, a hostile nation-state, a terrorist a criminal, the threats that those could pose. So, here you’re talking about a potential leak from a Chinese government-controlled lab that killed millions of Americans, and that’s precisely what that capability was designed for. I should add that our work related to this continues and there are not a whole lot of details I can share that aren’t classified.”
“I will just make the observation that the Chinese government seems to me has been doing its best to try to thwart and obfuscate the work here, the work that we’re doing, the work that our U.S. government and close foreign partners are doing,” he added. “And that’s unfortunate for everybody.”
Woody Harrelson, who raised eyebrows over the weekend after his off-script rant against coronavirus vaccine mandates while hosting “Saturday Night Live,” is railing against COVID-19 safety protocols on film sets. The actor, who is promoting his new movie “Champions,” called the measures meant to protect crew members “absurd” during a new interview with The New York Times. “I don’t think that anybody should have the right to demand that you’re forced to do the testing, forced to wear the mask, and forced to get vaccinated three years on,” Harrelson said. “I’m just like, let’s be done with this nonsense. It’s not fair to the crews. I don’t have to wear the mask. Why should they? Why should they have to be vaccinated? How’s that not up to the individual? I shouldn’t be talking about this [expletive].”
The “Cheers” star said the protocols make him “angry” on behalf of the crew members whose unions have pushed to keep the safety measures in place. Harrelson previously falsely claimed face masks don’t stop the spread of coronavirus and said he doesn’t believe in “germ theory” and has been able to avoid COVID by keeping his immune system “internally clean.” “The anarchist part of me, I don’t feel that we should have forced testing, forced masking and forced vaccination,” he told the Times. “That’s not a free country. Really, I’m talking about the crew. Because I can get out of wearing a mask. I can test less. I’m not in the same position they’re in, but it’s wrong. It’s three years. Stop.” He added, “As an anarchist, I don’t do well with mandates.”
A Republican bill to prevent people who are vaccinated against COVID-19 from donating blood has been tabled in the Montana State Legislature. Critics of House Bill 645,  introduced by Rep. Greg Kmetz on Feb. 17, said it would “decimate” the state’s blood supply. “Montana’s blood supply could be cut by up to 80%, leading to adverse patient outcomes including unnecessary and unconscionable death,” Cliff Numark, senior vice president of blood collection nonprofit Vitalant, told the Daily Montanan.
The bill would have also banned donors suffering from symptoms of long COVID. According to Kaiser Health News, more than 90% of current blood donors have previously been infected with COVID or received the vaccine against the virus. Kmetz said his constituents didn’t want “vaccinated blood making a patient’s health situation even worse” — a baseless claim. Republican Rep. Jodee Etchart, who requested the bill, suggested establishing a system with two blood banks, one each for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. Numark said that no test exists to detect long COVID or “gene-altering” proteins. “There’s no test to do that, so we would not be able to comply to determine whether people have received it or not,” he said.
People who experience persistent fatigue as a symptom of long COVID may have structural changes in their brains, according to study published in the scientific journal the Lancet on Tuesday. Researchers from the University of Berlin analyzed patients who experienced moderate or severe fatigue as a post-COVID syndrome, compared to multiple sclerosis patients who reported fatigue. In the coronavirus patients, they observed deformations and decreased volumes in parts of the brain, including the thalamus, putamen, and pallidum. They also discovered that the course of the disease, whether mild or requiring hospitalization, did not relate to the severity of fatigue. “Using MRI-based volumetry and diffusion imaging, we show that the persistent fatigue symptoms in patients with post-COVID syndrome have a distinct neuronal substrate and are associated with fatigue levels, daytime sleepiness, and neuropsychiatric symptoms,” the authors wrote.
While the Pentagon has asked military services to rescind any remaining COVID-19 vaccination policies by March 17, service members who previously refused the requirement could still be penalized for “disobeying a lawful order,” according to Defense Department officials. “It’s very important that our service members follow orders when they are lawful, and there are thousands that did not,” Gilbert Cisneros Jr., undersecretary of defense for personnel, told members of the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. “The services are going through a process to review those cases to make a determination of what needs to be done.” From August 2021 to January 2023, all active-duty service members were required to receive a coronavirus vaccine, according to the Military Times.
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Aidin Vaziri is a staff writer at The San Francisco Chronicle.