California’s battle against coronavirus has progressed so rapidly in the last few months that many experts are optimistic the state has experienced the worst of the pandemic and that another disastrous wave is unlikely as vaccinations increase and case rates keep plunging.
If those forecasts hold fast, California will enter the summer in a better place than many thought. State officials hope to have the economy largely reopened by June 15. And while coronavirus variants caused concerns earlier this year, officials and experts say they have generally been less aggressive than feared and vaccines seem to be offering protection against the various variants.
“I am optimistic,” said Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, medical epidemiologist and infectious diseases expert at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “I think that we are going in the right direction – we will never have a surge like we had during the viral tsunami of the post-holiday season, just because now we have so many people vaccinated, and so many people have got natural immunity from having had the disease.”
Kim-Farley and others have said it’s always possible the virus could come back in some areas where people refuse to take the vaccine. But vaccination rates in California are rising fast.
“We may see some increases from time to time, especially if the virus gets into pockets of unimmunized people. But we’re not going to see these major threats that occurred to us previously,” Kim-Farley said.
On Monday, officials said Los Angeles County could reach “herd immunity” from the coronavirus by mid- to late July. Herd immunity, sometimes referred to as community immunity, occurs when enough people have been inoculated or have obtained natural immunity to protect the larger population against the virus.
With about 400,000 shots administered weekly, the county has about 2 million first doses to go before 80% of all residents 16 and older will have received at least one shot, Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a news briefing.
Ferrer noted that the estimated population that needs to be vaccinated in L.A. County for herd immunity is a guess, “but we do assume it’s probably somewhere around 80%.”
California is progressing to a situation where there’s markedly diminished transmission of disease because there is a decreasing number of people vulnerable to the coronavirus, either because of vaccination or prior infection with disease, Kim-Farley said.
While it’s true that it’s unlikely California will get to the point where there will be zero new daily cases and the virus is eliminated, “I do feel very confident that we are turning the corner, getting to that light at the end of the tunnel that’s been promised, of markedly reducing the number of cases that allows us then to be able to start dialing back on all these restrictions because of the fact that community rates of transmission are becoming very, very low,” Kim-Farley said.
Generally speaking, different regions of California may move faster in increasing immunity than others.
Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, believes the Bay Area will see some form of herd immunity first – perhaps by mid-June or early July – followed by urban and suburban Southern California and agricultural California at some point after that.
But that’s all contingent on vaccine rates remaining steady and not declining more steeply than they have recently.
In addition, scientists are increasingly confident that vaccines available in the U.S. “to a certain extent are protective from severe disease across all variants,” said Dr. Catherine Blish, a Stanford University professor of medicine and infectious diseases. “And that is really very good news.”
Last week, Los Angeles and San Francisco counties were among the latest California counties to enter the least restrictive yellow tier, allowing businesses to open to the maximum extent possible under the statewide color-coded framework for pandemic regulations.
Both counties have among the lowest average daily new coronavirus cases of California’s 58 counties.