Why Coronavirus Cases Are On The Rise In California And What To Do About It

Women wearing face masks sunbathe on the beach amid the novel coronavirus pandemic in Huntington Beach on April 25. (Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images)

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If you're like us, you might be feeling confused about the many, many mixed messages we've been receiving lately when it comes to the pandemic. One second, you hear about more businesses reopening (Spas?! Tattoo salons?! Bars?!). Then like whiplash, the governor is telling everyone that California's coronavirus numbers are on the rise and our behaviors "are putting people's lives at risk."

And new coronavirus case numbers in California are rising, from 4,230 positive tests Sunday, to 5,019 Monday, to 7,149 Tuesday. COVID-19 hospitalizations in California are also up — there's been a 29% increase in hospitalizations over the past two weeks. The number of COVID-19 patients entering the ICU? Those are up too, by 18%.

"Look at these numbers, and ask yourself, do you feel safer going out today than you did a few months ago, based upon an unprecedented number of people now that are walking around with this virus, and the likelihood so many of them are asymptomatic, and are within just a few feet of where you are?" Newsom said on Wednesday.

So what's an Angeleno to do? Try and ease into the new normal, or pay attention to the uptick and stay home? Are things getting better or worse?

"I think everybody's quite anxiously looking at the numbers," Professor Paula Cannon told KPCC's daily news and culture show Take Two. Cannon is a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at USC's Keck School of Medicine, and a virologist to boot. "You know, the numbers really are going up."


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WHY ARE CASES RISING?

It's a combination of things, says Cannon.

One factor? People are generally tired of being quarantined and might be letting down their guard, perhaps a little too much.

There's also been a shift in who is getting infected, Cannon says. It's younger people, particularly in Los Angeles County, where 18- to 40-year-olds account for 40% of new infections (a month ago they accounted for 33%). In California, more than 44% of new diagnoses are in the 34 or younger age group, up from 29% a month ago.

The change in demographic has an upside: "The good thing about that group is they often have very mild, you know, not very serious manifestations of the disease," Cannon says. "So, I guess if you want, if you want anybody to get it, you want younger people to get it."

However, the risk is that younger people who don't have serious symptoms might "kind of shrug it off," Cannon says, because they don't feel like the risk is that high, meaning they might continue to go out to bars and restaurants or see their families instead of self-isolating long enough for the virus to be completely non-transmissible.

It's currently unclear whether or not that rise is the result of recent protests, more business reopenings, or simply quarantine fatigue.

San Francisco epidemiologist Dr. George Rutherford told The Mercury News that there has not yet been a surge in new cases in places like Minnesota and Washington D.C., sites of the initial protests, despite predictions. He noted that many protesters wore masks.

ARE WE REOPENING TOO SOON?

Cannon says she is concerned about the spike in infections, but reopening should not be a major factor in spreading the disease if people are smart about it.

"If businesses open up carefully with social distancing, and people wear masks — if those things are implemented — we can do that pretty safely," she says.

But that only works if everyone — business owners, managers, staff and customers — follows safety protocols.

Even though California is now one of the states requiring all residents to wear masks outside of their homes, some people are not having it. The L.A. Times is calling it a "mask rebellion."

SOME TIPS TO STAYING SAFE, IF YOU'RE WORRIED ABOUT A SPIKE IN INFECTIONS

It's still best to stay home as much as possible, Cannon says, but it is summer, so we know people are even more likely to go out and socialize in coming weeks.

If you must, here are some of Professor Cannon's recommendations.

Social Gatherings:

  • Plan ahead — it's really important to think it through before you invite people over. Are you lucky enough to have a back yard? If so, how are you planning on keeping people physically distanced? Does it make more sense to host a small gathering in a public space, like a park? Note: when people drink alcohol they tend to forget about social distancing, even if they have the best intentions — something to keep in mind. It's just human nature.
  • If you're hosting a gathering, talk to the people who are going to be coming ahead of time and make sure everybody's on the same page as far as wearing masks and following whatever other rules make you feel comfortable.
  • Keep it small, to two or three families maximum.
  • Keep it outside.
  • Don't let people mingle; seat families at different tables, at least 6 feet apart with enough space so if they have to get up, they're not getting too close to anyone.
  • Have one person serve food — several people don't have to gather at a banquet table or buffet area at once.
  • If someone needs to use your restroom, ask that they wear a mask and wipe down surfaces after they leave.

Eating Out:

  • Going to a restaurant? Call ahead. Ask them what their protocols are.
  • If it's a local restaurant, drive by and check it out. Are they using their outdoor space or patio? Reconfigured a parking lot?
  • If people are eating inside, are they very well spaced out? Are people wearing masks apart from when they're actually eating? Are wait staff also wearing masks?
  • Most importantly, do you feel safe and comfortable going to that restaurant, based on your answers to the above questions? Don't forget, take out and delivery are still solid options.

Gina Pollack contributed to this story.

LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW WITH PAULA CANNON HERE: