Coronavirus Today: Lights, camera, action for movie theaters

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Good evening. I’m Thuc Nhi Nguyen, and it’s Monday, March 22. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

Being in an indoor space with strangers for hours at a time may sound like the last thing you should do during the pandemic. Don’t tell that to Faris Jalilov.

The 17-year-old was in a seat at AMC Burbank 16 on the first day of its reopening last week. Jalilov is one of several cinephiles who cherished the opportunity to return to theaters after Los Angeles County entered the red tier, my colleague James Rainey reports.

“I just couldn’t stop smiling,” Jalilov said after seeing “The Croods: A New Age” last Thursday with his 5-year-old sister.

It was his second trip to the movies since the theater reopened. Earlier in the week he spotted director Christopher Nolan, who had apparently come to the multiplex for a viewing of his sci-fi action thriller “Tenet.” Jalilov — who was cooler than I would be in that situation — told the award-winning director how much he admired his work.

Signs of the pandemic still linger throughout theaters. Only 25% of seats can be filled. Workers are spraying disinfectant on seats like they pour butter on popcorn. Hand sanitizer is more common than ticket stubs.

But after a year of watching Netflix on small TV screens or visiting drive-in theaters to watch from a car, the chance to go to an indoor theater is about more than just eating popcorn of questionable freshness out of obscenely large containers.

“Going back into a theater is just such an experience, it’s hard to even encapsulate it,” said Brian J. Patterson, who wore a Wonder Woman ensemble to watch the superhero flick when theaters reopened. “It’s almost a rite of passage for American culture. When you go there, you are going to pay tribute to things that seem bigger than life.”

That’s the kind of enthusiasm the struggling industry needs. Even before the pandemic, experts worried about the possible end of big theatrical releases. Companies settled for streaming debuts of blockbuster films like “Wonder Woman 1984,” which was released on HBO Max on Christmas Day along with theater showings. Yet a movie with a $200-million budget deserved an equally outsized screen for fans like Patterson.

Some use movies as an escape. Finally getting to sit in front of the silver screen provides a much-needed outlet after a difficult year.

“You just step into the movie house and whatever problems are going on in your life, they just melt away,” said James Wood, general manager of Hollywood’s famed El Capitan theater.

By the numbers

California cases, deaths and vaccinations as of 6:20 p.m. Monday:

3,622,433 confirmed cases, up 3,331 today; 57,201
deaths, up 168 today; 14,819,755 vaccines administered, up 299,180 today

Track California’s coronavirus spread and vaccination efforts — including the latest numbers and how they break down — with our graphics.

In California, 10,070,870 people have received at least one dose, or 25.5%, and 4,882,772, or 12.4%, are fully vaccinated.

Across California

It’s not unusual for parents to move in search of better school opportunities for their kids. Now, in addition to capable teachers and proper resources, parents are evaluating potential schools on the basis of their pandemic responses.

Indeed, families from around California who were desperate to get their kids back into classrooms have moved to the state’s rural northern counties, where the availability of in-person classes has caused enrollments to increase, my colleague Hailey Branson-Potts reports.

The Trinity Alps Unified School District has added about 30 students to its previous 700 K-12 enrollment. The district opened on-campus classes for elementary, middle and high school students in August, when the county had just 10 confirmed coronavirus cases.

At one point, the high school closed its campus and switched to distance learning for 17 days because too many staff members and students had been potentially exposed to the virus. At the elementary school, the kindergarten and transitional kindergarten classes each had to quarantine for potential exposure, but there have been no cases connected to the site.

Tabatha Plew, a mother of three, quit her construction job in Fresno County and moved to Trinity County to ensure that her three children could learn in front of a teacher instead of a screen. She left behind the highest-paying job she’d ever had. “The money didn’t mean anything when my kids were struggling,” she said.

Parents in Los Angeles, which is not too far removed from the devastating holiday surge, are still balancing the risks and rewards of in-person learning. Not many are ready to let their children return, my colleague Howard Blume reports. Less than 3 in 10 L.A. Unified School District students would return immediately, according to a survey compiled by school officials.

In an effort to persuade parents, especially those in hard-hit communities, district officials launched a confidence-building campaign. They cited the district’s safety standards, which are among the strictest in the nation, and the harms of learning loss.

An example of LAUSD’s tight guidelines is the space required between desks. While California adopted last week’s new recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allowing just three feet of distance between desks, LAUSD will stick with the measure of six feet, Supt. Austin Beutner said.

Reducing the space between desks would make it easier to fit more students into classrooms and let districts avoid staggered, hybrid schedules. But that’s not Beutner’s primary concern.

“Our challenge is convincing families that schools are safe, not finding ways to stuff more kids into classrooms,” he said.

In-person classes for elementary students are scheduled to begin next month. Part of LAUSD’s campaign to get parents to send their kids back to classrooms includes making vaccines available at campuses for family members in low-income communities.

Vaccine appointments in L.A. County are still precious commodities. The supply crunch means fewer doses are available for people seeking a first shot. County-run vaccination sites are reserving only 44.5% of this week’s supply of 280,000 doses for first shots.

The same problem doesn’t apply for sites run by the City of L.A., which will reserve about 50,000 of its 70,000 shots for first doses.

A map of California showing many counties in the purple tier, 20 in the red tier, three in orange and one in yellow.

A map showing most counties in the red tier (including all southern ones) and 11, mostly in central California, in the purple

A description of the four tiers California uses to determine when counties can let businesses open, based on coronavirus risk

See the latest on California’s coronavirus closures and reopenings, and the metrics that inform them, with our tracker.

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Around the nation and the world

A fourth COVID-19 shot could soon be available in the United States.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which is already in use in other countries, was 79% effective at preventing any COVID-19 symptoms in large-scale U.S. trials, the company announced Monday. The two-dose vaccine was also 100% effective at preventing severe cases of the disease, and there were no safety issues with blood clots.

The company can now apply to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization in the U.S. If it’s granted, the AstraZeneca shots could be rolled out alongside those from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

Regulators in Germany and France briefly suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine after receiving reports of blood clots in a small number of recipients. That prompted the company, with the help of an independent neurologist, to examine the U.S. trial data for information regarding blood clots, or thrombosis. They found no safety concerns.

The European Union’s drug regulator also said there was no evidence linking the vaccine to an increased risk for blood clots, but some people remained unconvinced. Snap polls showed that public confidence in the shot dipped even though they’re back in use. The latest U.S. trials could help boost the shot’s reputation.

“The earlier U.K., Brazil, South Africa trials had a more variable and inconsistent design,” which may have made the FDA skeptical about the AstraZeneca vaccine, said Julian Tang, a virologist at the University of Leicester in England. “Now the U.S. clinical trial has confirmed the efficacy of this vaccine.” (For more on vaccine efficacy, check out today’s reader question.)

Speaking of questions, when we asked you what you were looking forward to most after all this, many of you said hugs. Well, the time is approaching.

Nursing homes and assisted living facilities, which were on strict lockdown for the past year, are opening their doors for visitors. Many of their residents were among the first to be vaccinated, and with COVID-19 cases and deaths declining, federal officials recommended relaxing restrictions for long-term care facilities, including getting hugs from loved ones.

The year of separation took a toll on nursing home residents and their families. When Gloria Winston, a 94-year-old retirement community resident in Rhode Island, welcomed her great-great niece, the 5-year-old was hesitant to lean in for an embrace. But after two hours of catching up, the youngster dived into Winston’s lap for one last hug before leaving.

“It’s just a release of all that anxiety and sadness that comes with being isolated,” said Wensday Greenbaum, the girl’s mother and Winston’s great-niece. “It’s been a difficult year, and this is one step closer to normalcy.”

We’re waiting for more vaccine so we can return to all of life’s regular activities, but humans aren’t the only ones who can benefit from the shots. Scientists and veterinarians are also racing to protect animals from the coronavirus, and for some species, that includes a vaccine.

Ten primates at the San Diego Zoo have already been fully vaccinated with a special shot developed by Zoetis, a veterinary pharmaceutical company in New Jersey. A troop of gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park tested positive for the coronavirus in January, prompting researchers to pursue a vaccine — especially for great apes, which share 98% of their DNA with humans and are particularly susceptible to the virus. So far, confirmed coronavirus cases in animals include gorillas, tigers and lions at zoos; domestic cats and dogs; farmed mink and at least one wild mink in Utah.

A viral outbreak among animals is a two-prong problem. Not only could the virus spread in a wild species with extremely reduced populations and present a conservation concern, but passing the virus from humans to animals could also result in additional variants.

That situation already played out in Denmark, where workers at a mink farm infected the animals. As the virus spread among the mink, it mutated, and human handlers contracted the new variant.

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from readers who want to know: What does it mean for a vaccine to be 95% effective?

Vaccine effectiveness is a way of measuring how good a vaccine is at preventing a particular bad outcome. That could be the risk of developing a particular disease, the risk of developing a severe case of that disease, or even the risk of dying from it.

For instance, in clinical trials, the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech was found to be 95% effective at preventing cases of COVID-19. That means that compared with people who didn’t get the vaccine, those who did were 95% less likely to become sick with COVID-19.

Here’s another way to look at it: Let’s say you have a group of unvaccinated people and expect 100 of them to come down with COVID-19. If you took that same group of people and gave all of them two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, then you would expect only five of them to get sick.

To calculate this type of vaccine effectiveness, you first have to determine the risk of getting COVID-19 for both groups of people — the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. (Ideally, everything else about them would be the same.) Then you use a simple equation to calculate how much the risk was reduced for vaccinated people compared with unvaccinated people.

Curious about that equation? It’s basically a simple fraction. First you take the risk for unvaccinated people and subtract the risk for vaccinated people. Then you take that difference and divide by the risk for unvaccinated people. Multiply the result by 100 to express the answer as a percentage. The higher the percentage, the more effective the vaccine.

You can use this approach to determine all kinds of vaccine effectiveness. For instance, as previously mentioned, AstraZeneca announced today that its vaccine was 79% effective at preventing COVID-19 in clinical trials in the U.S. That means that compared with unvaccinated people, those who got the company’s vaccine were 79% less likely to develop any kind of COVID-19.

The company also said its vaccine was 100% effective at preventing cases of severe COVID-19 — meaning that those who got the vaccine were completely protected from becoming severely ill. To figure this out, researchers calculated the risk that an unvaccinated person would develop a severe case of COVID-19 and compared it with the risk for vaccinated people. The equation is the same, but the numbers you plug into it are different.

A lot of people want to know whether COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing coronavirus infection. Researchers don’t have an answer to this yet because they haven’t had time to conduct a study that would accurately measure the risk of infection for vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Once they have those numbers in hand for a particular vaccine, they’ll use the same equation to get their answer.

We want to hear from you. Email us your coronavirus questions, and we’ll do our best to answer them. Wondering if your question’s already been answered? Check out our archive here.

Resources

Need a vaccine? Keep in mind that supplies are limited, and getting one can be a challenge. Sign up for email updates, check your eligibility and, if you’re eligible, make an appointment where you live: City of Los Angeles | Los Angeles County | Kern County | Orange County | Riverside County | San Bernardino County | San Diego County | San Luis Obispo County | Santa Barbara County | Ventura County

Need more vaccine help? Talk to your healthcare provider. Call the state’s COVID-19 hotline at (833) 422-4255. And consult our county-by-county guides to getting vaccinated.

Practice social distancing using these tips, and wear a mask or two.

Watch for symptoms such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, chills, shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and loss of taste or smell. Here’s what to look for and when.

Need to get tested? Here’s where you can in L.A. County and around California.

Americans are hurting in many ways. We have advice for helping kids cope, resources for people experiencing domestic abuse and a newsletter to help you make ends meet.

We’ve answered hundreds of readers’ questions. Explore them in our archive here.

For our most up-to-date coverage, visit our homepage and our Health section, get our breaking news alerts, and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

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