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As Vaccinations Go Down, Concerns About A Winter COVID-19 Uptick Rise

A woman walks toward the doors of a CVS Pharmacy in the background as a large sign advertises in big red text that COVID-19 vaccines are available at the location.
A woman enters a CVS Pharmacy COVID-19 vaccine site in Monterey Park on April 27, 2021.
(Frederic J. Brown
AFP via Getty Images)
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Fewer people are getting infected with COVID-19 in California. Highly potent, free vaccines are widely available. Hospitalizations and deaths are slowly ticking down. But for the Golden State to continue with its low case rate, health experts say it’s important that vaccinations increase.

“There continues to be COVID-19 transmission in L.A. County, particularly among those who are not fully vaccinated,” said county public health director Barbara Ferrer. “It is important to do everything we know how to do to prevent transmission, with almost 56% of LA County residents not yet fully vaccinated.”

Vaccination trends May 17, 2021
(LA County Dept. of Public Health)

Ferrer said demand for vaccines has dropped. Mass vaccination sites in Ventura, Orange and Los Angeles counties are in the process of closing, as fewer people show up.

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“This lenient period we're in right now is a function of the fact that we're coming off of the winter waves and the fact that COVID is already becoming a seasonal phenomenon,” said UC Irvine epidemiologist Andrew Noymer.

"It's not the end of the pandemic."

Respiratory viruses usually tick up in the colder months and Noymer said the coronavirus is no different.

“I do expect to see more cases in the fall and in the winter,” Noymer said. “Let's get vaccinated now and make that wave as small as possible.”

State health officials haven’t announced a herd immunity goal, but L.A. County health officials say they could reach 80% by July if vaccinations don’t fall. But Noymer says looking at herd immunity by county, or even by state, isn’t helpful since air travel makes the world so interconnected.

“It's really a global problem at this point and herd immunity at the hyperlocal level isn't a meaningful concept,” he said.

Health officials may see a bump in fully vaccinated residents in the next couple of weeks. Many people under 50 weren’t eligible for the vaccine until the middle of April; those people are now getting a second dose. Pfizer’s vaccine is now available for kids 12 and up, and L.A. County health officials are trying to capitalize on the last few weeks of the academic year by setting up vaccine sites at many middle and high schools.

The vaccination effort is building to June 15, when the state is expected to reopen without business restrictions and lift its indoor mask order for vaccinated people. Noymer says we should enjoy the freedom, though it may not be permanent.

“Public health messaging traditionally has thrived on black and white. Don't smoke tobacco cigarettes — that's a clear directive. But with masking, it just gets really nuanced. You don't need to mask anymore, but you might need to in the future,” he said.

”I would say put the masks in a drawer, not in the trash.”