New pandemic surge arrives in the Beach Cities

Graph by Beach Cities Health District

by Mark McDermott 

The new surge in COVID-19 cases that is occurring globally due to combination of the highly contagious novel coronavirus Delta variant and lingering unvaccinated populations has reached the Beach Cities. 

Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Redondo Beach all experienced a significant uptick in COVID-19 over the past two weeks. 

Redondo Beach registered 65 new cases the week ending July 17, the most since January, which was the peak of the pandemic. Manhattan Beach registered 21 cases the week ending July 10, and 32 the following week, its highest totals since early April. Hermosa Beach registered 18 cases the week ending July 10, and 32 cases the week ending July 17, its highest total since early February. On July 20, Manhattan Beach reported 13 new cases. 

Dr. Anita Sircar, an infectious diseases specialist who works at the ICUs three local hospitals, including Providence Little Company Mary Medical Center in Torrance, said that signs of trouble appeared as soon as restrictions were lifted in mid-June. 

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Sircar said. “LA County withdrew the mask mandate June 15. By June 30, we were already seeing rumblings of this, with an increase of cases, almost entirely comprised of unvaccinated cases.” 

Sircar, who formerly worked for the Center for Disease Control fighting the Ebola outbreak in Africa, and for two decades worked on infectious disease outbreaks around the globe, said another surge will likely occur later this year. 

“I predict the winter will be another surge in cases — not as bad as last year — and that we will start to see it in younger people more and more,” Sircar said. 

The Delta variant, which first emerged in India, is 50 percent more contagious than the previously most contagious strain, called Alpha, which itself was 50 percent more contagious than the original novel coronavirus. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has called this version of the virus “the fastest and fittest” of all the novel coronavirus strains. The new strain has been ruthlessly effective in achieving community spread. Although vaccination rates are significantly higher in the Beach Cities, just over half of LA County’s 10 million people remain unvaccinated. It is this population the Delta variant has honed in on. 

L.A. County continues to see alarming trends of increased community spread,” said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, LA County Director of Public Health. “The spread of the more infectious Delta variant through intermingling of unmasked individuals where vaccination status is unknown has caused a rapid spread of COVID-19 that is resulting in a significant increase in cases and hospitalizations.” 

“It is a hunter,” said Dr. William Kim, chief medical officer for the Beach Cities Health District, referring to the Delta variant. “It is much more adept at finding an unvaccinated individual and affecting them, and then that individual almost exponentially can give it to others, including the vaccinated population —  you know, there are a few breakthrough cases. But the good news is vaccines, particularly the messenger RNA vaccines, are pretty good at preventing serious disease with the Delta variant.” 

More than 10,000 new cases were reported in LA County over the last week, the most since the first week of March. According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, 99 percent of all new cases are people who have not been vaccinated. LA County Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly told the Board of Supervisors last week that the county’s system, which includes four large hospitals and 19 health centers, has yet to see a patient who has been vaccinated and contracted COVID-19. 

“We have not admitted a single person for COVID who is fully vaccinated — with either the [Johnson and Johnson], Pfizer or Moderna vaccines,” Ghaly said.

The unvaccinated population in LA County includes 1.3 million children under the age of 12. Children from 12 to 15 were authorized in May after studies found that vaccines were safe for them. 

Sircar said that the very nature of the novel coronavirus is that it will find the most vulnerable, and unfortunately this particularly means children. 

“Ultimately, viruses have one job, to survive by any means,” Sircar said. “That’s why this one has mutated several times as a survival mechanism. So when the first wave came through, it effectively wiped through the weakest immune systems first, the elderly. They were the low hanging fruit, so to speak, unfortunately. But now that COVID has wiped through the most vulnerable, and more and more adults, or rather people above the age of 12 are getting vaccinated, it’s going to start to look for another vulnerable population it can survive in, and at this stage, children are wide open until they are eligible for vaccination.” 

“Granted, children are less likely to have severe disease, or even die from infection, there are still reports to suggest that children may suffer more longer term complications even if they have mild disease,” Sircar said. 

Kim said the long term effects of the virus are uncharted territory for all age groups, but that the emerging science is troubling. 

“We are seeing that not only in children, but in the adult population where people survive COVID, yet they still have ongoing problems,” Kim said. “Respiratory [difficulty] is one, chronic dizziness is another…fatigue, headaches, all sorts of symptoms. It’s yet to be seen in our pediatric population, those who didn’t have mild to moderate disease — are they going to be a normal child afterwards? And the answer is we really don’t know. The best thing is try to avoid infection, and when the vaccine is available, give it to your child. Because the long term ramifications of this illness are yet to be seen, and I think they are going to be much more broad and deep than we want to believe.” 

The LA County Department of Public Health has registered a total of 1,269,090 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, including  30,275 case among kids under 5,  57,848 cases in kids 5 to 11 years old, and 72,100 in kids from 12 to 17. 

Kim said the good news is that vaccines are likely to be approved for kids by the end of this year, if not sooner. But he also said he expects the current surge to worsen as the impact of the July 4 holiday fully plays out. Like Sircar, he believes a bigger surge is likely on the horizon this winter, particularly among children. 

“They are very, very much at risk,” Kim said. “With the Ultra virus, the first variant that came out, pediatric disease was mild. They had a lot of  runny noses, and so probably some cases were under the radar, even though there were a significant number of reported cases. But with this Delta variant, it is likely to become much more prevalent; our most precious asset is our children, and I think they’re going to be the center of the storm this fall and winter. I honestly believe that and am scared about it. But vaccinations for this group are just about here, so I’m hopeful that the parents of these children will understand and believe in the platforms that are available, in their safety and efficacy and how this is what will protect their children from significant disease.” 

Kim expressed concern that the pandemic fatigue people are experiencing combined with deadly efficiency of the Delta variant is a perfect storm for prolonging the pandemic. 

“I know everybody’s done,” he said. “Emotions are relatively raw and there’s been tremendous polarization as those who distrust the science behind the vaccines and just masking and social distancing and hunkering down. I mean, pretty much everyone is tired of it.” 

“We had a bit of a clearing, but we’re not out of the woods yet,” Sircar said. “The only way out is through, and the only way through is to keep vaccinating.” 

Beach Cities vaccination rates are much higher than both the county and national averages, with 78.7 percent of all people 16 and over in Hermosa Beach vaccinated, 81 percent in Manhattan Beach, and 78.5 percent in Redondo Beach. But those still not vaccinated will keep local numbers surging as the Delta variant continues its community spread. 

Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand urged anyone who is not vaccinated to get vaccinated as soon as possible. 

“This is now a disease of the unvaccinated,” Brand said. “Unfortunately, the collateral damage they are causing will affect all of us.”

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