Is a New COVID Variant Causing L.A.’s Explosion in Cases?

Could Southern California be experiencing a supercharged mutation of the coronavirus similar to the one ravaging Britain? At the moment, experts are skeptical

On Saturday, the discovery of a more easily transmittable variant of COVID-19 prompted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to impose the most severe lockdown that London has seen since the start of the pandemic. Citing data from the World Health Organization, CNN reported that Britain’s new COVID-19 variant may be up to 70 percent more transmissible than earlier ones, resulting in record rates of infection and hospitalization across the U.K. Unsurprisingly, Britain’s European neighbors moved quickly to ban travelers from England. But despite their best attempts to contain it, the new COVID variation has already surfaced in several other European nations, including Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, and Austria. A separate but similarly aggressive variant is spreading quickly across South Africa.

Meanwhile, here in California, hospitalizations and infections continue to multiply at an alarming rate, even as the state has imposed some of the strictest lockdowns and social distancing policies in the nation. Under the leadership of Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor Eric Garcetti, Los Angeles moved early in the pandemic to shut down schools, restaurants, and bars, and to limit gatherings among people from different households. Two weeks ago, as infections spiked, local health officials imposed the tightest battery of restrictions since the lockdown began last March—including banning outdoor dining despite angry pushback from restaurant owners and weary residents.

Still, since the start of December cases have continued to explode, filling L.A. County hospitals and effectively reducing Southern California’s ICU capacity to zero. According to the New York Times, California is second only to Tennessee in terms of average daily case rate over the past seven days, with 112.9 cases per 100,000 residents to Tennessee’s 131.1 cases per 100,000 residents. In Los Angeles County, approximately one in 80 residents who are out in the general population–not including individuals who are already hospitalized or ordered to be in isolation due to known COVID exposure–is believed to currently be infected with the virus.

Meanwhile, states that have responded less aggressively are reporting fewer cases, according to the Times‘ data. Over the past week, Texas, which has rejected sterner measures to combat the spread of the virus, has reported 57.3 new COVID cases per 100,000 residents. Florida has reported 52, but there is speculation that Governor Ron DeSantis, who has fiercely opposed calls for social distancing, has systematically underreported the state’s COVID cases and deaths. Still, even the worst-hit counties have ICU capacity. Miami-Dade County in South Florida, which has an average daily case rate of 85.6 per 100,000 residents—much higher than the state’s average—still reportedly had just under 20 percent of its ICU capacity at last reported tally. (Although, it’s worth noting that Florida doesn’t appear to be tracking ICU capacity with the same vigilance as California.)

According to New York Times data, California’s neighbors Arizona and Nevada come in at sixth and eighth place in terms of average daily case rates (with 80.2 and 76 cases per 100,000 residents, respectively). As the latest wave of infections batters the nation, the lack of federal standards has caused public health responses to vary widely. Where California halted in-person restaurant dining, shut down playgrounds, and banned nonessential travel, Tennessee, for instance, has yet to issue a mask mandate or require businesses to impose social distancing.

All of which has left Californians wondering: Why is a state that has responded so aggressively to COVID been hit so disproportionately hard by it? Could it be that the virus variation causing havoc in London can also be blamed for the outsized infection rate in L.A.?

As of now, most experts insist, the answer seems to be a firm no. California has previously seen variants of COVID-19, including one discovered in May, that proved to be more contagious than a variation of the virus that was prevalent earlier. But scientists and testing centers have so far seen no evidence of a new variant here. In response to questions Monday, Governor Newsom assured reporters that there is no evidence that the British coronavirus variant has surfaced in the state.

Scientists and health officials Los Angeles spoke with agree.

For one thing, they point out, it’s still not 100 percent certain that the British variation is actually more contagious. Moreover, while some experts speculate that a new variant of COVID could explain higher transmission rates here, most believe the more plausible explanation is behavioral: after nine months of lockdown, Angelenos have grown weary of restrictions and have let down their guard. The holidays accelerated that trend. As far back as October, L.A. health officials warned that an increase in travel and family gatherings over the holidays would incite a dangerous rise in infections. The jump we have witnessed since Thanksgiving has exceeded their most dire predictions.

Since the pandemic began, many scientists have predicted that the state’s temperate climate gave it an extra layer of protection against the spread of the disease, since it allowed residents greater opportunity to interact outdoors where the virus is less easily transmitted. December has been a typically temperate month in Los Angeles: clear skies, high temperatures near 80 degrees. So what gives?

UCLA infectious disease epidemiologist Dr. Tim Brewer concedes there is still a lot that’s still unknown about the virus and its spread. He believes the latest spike may just be a matter of natural variability—the downside of the same trend that kept California ahead of the curve early in the pandemic while the disease spread uncontrolled in New York. “As the virus spreads through different populations, its level of transmissibility will go up and down,” Brewer says. “For a long time California had been in the bottom quarter in COVID rates. Now it’s in the top ten. It would be unusual to have mutations affecting California conferring greater transmission risk and not have it spread anywhere else.”

Still, if the virus continues to expand here at such a rapid rate, it’s a safe bet that questions about the state’s outsized infection rate will continue to mount. The one thing everyone agrees on is the need for Angelenos to maintain their vigilance. This is no time to second-guess public health mandates. A few months ago, approximately 1 in 800 people in L.A. County had contracted the virus. Shortly before Thanksgiving, that number jumped to 1 in 145. Now, 1 in 80 Angelenos are presumed to be infected. “Most mutations are not significant or cause for concern,” says Anne Rimoin, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the UCLA School of Public Health. “But it’s important to monitor and to understand them.”

Adds Omai Garner, director of clinical microbiology in the UCLA health system: “My first question would be: Is this a new lineage that we have right now circulating in the population as compared to what we had a few months ago? I’ve not seen it.” But, he acknowledges, the UCLA health lab is at near full capacity supporting the unparalleled surge in clinical cases, and unable to do as much genetic sequencing work on the virus as he’d like. “We’re so overwhelmed just keeping up with clinical work,” he says.

For the moment, the best advice is to follow public health’s by now inescapable guidelines—social distance, wear a mask—and wait for things to improve.

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