Pictured: Gov. Gavin Newsom and Dr. Anthony Fauci during a live conversation on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. Screen capture of video. 

by Kimberly Rivers

kimberly@vcreporter.com

Today, Gov. Gavin Newsom spoke with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and former White House coronavirus task force member, and announced that a laboratory has confirmed the new, more contagious strain being tracked in the United Kingdom since September has been detected in Southern California. 

Dr. Robert Levin, health officer with Ventura County Public Health, said he has not yet heard where the case of the new virus has been found in the region. He and other county officials pleaded with residents to not gather, wear masks and stay home when possible. Levin reported 400 new cases today, and five additional deaths from COVID-19 in the county. 

“There still is no cure for COVID-19…just supportive care,” said Dr. Tara Paterson, emergency medicine and critical care physician and co-director of Ventura County Medical Center ICU. Her emotion could be heard while she spoke at the county press conference on Dec. 30.  She shared the story of a 40-something-year-old man who died under her care just before Christmas. Staff in ICUs “have some medicines that will help change the duration” of the illness and may help reduce death, but Paterson implored the public to “please do your part. Please make small sacrifices by not gathering, so you don’t have to make the ultimate sacrifice and endure the suffering from COVID-19.”

Mutations are normal, expect more

Fauci said it is not at all surprising that the virus has mutated, as it is normal for this type of virus as it replicates and is transmitted through a population. 

“RNA viruses, they make a living out of mutating,” said Fauci. “They love to mutate, the more you replicate the more you mutate.” 

Fauci noted that the new strain is known to be more infectious, making it easier or “more efficient” to transmit from person to person than the original strain. He emphasized that at this time there “is not indication at all” that the new virus has an increased “ability to make you sick or kill you,” and also said it “doesn’t seem to evade the protections that are induced by vaccines” currently available, meaning the vaccines should be effective against the new strain. 

He said current info shows the current vaccines should be effective against the new strain but emphasized that ongoing mutations need to be monitored to ensure the “poly-clonal” response triggered by the vaccines, targeting multiple parts of the virus, is not evaded by new mutations. He referred to “monoclonal antibodies” like potential treatments, that target a very specific area of the virus and may not be effective with different mutations of the virus. 

According to Fauci, healthcare professionals have observed so far that people who have been infected with the new strain “don’t seem to get reinfected” in the same way as has been seen with the original strain. 

Fauci named the national public response to the virus as something unique in his career, stating that he’s “never seen an infection that has been in the middle of such divisiveness.” He pointed out that this divisiveness makes public health messaging and implementation very challenging, even more so than during his work during the HIV/AIDS epidemic decades ago. 

He expects the vaccine to be available to the general population in April, but said that herd immunity levels are unknown for this virus since it’s still so new. He estimates that vaccination rates will need to be around 70-85 percent to achieve herd immunity to stamp out ongoing transmission.  

Spring school opening

Also on Wednesday, Newsom released a plan aimed at opening up schools by the spring. The plan provides funding for various actions needed on campuses including testing. 

Fauci pointed to the type of testing done at some colleges and universities among students and staff to quickly identify those infected and isolate them as being a successful “community surveillance” testing methodology to stop the transmission and allow schools to open safely for both students, teachers and staff. He said those higher education campuses implementing that approach now have a “very low level of infection.”

The plan is based on four main points: 

  1. $2 billion in funding will be proposed for next year’s budget to support testing, up-to-date ventilation and personal protective equipment for schools with in-person instruction; 
  2. Classroom measures including testing, masks, contact tracing and prioritizing vaccinations for school staff; 
  3. Formation of the Safe Schools for All Team to provide assistance and oversight. The team is led by Dr. Naomi Bardach, a pediatrician and school safety expert, and will include staff from the California Department of Public Health, Cal/OSHA and educational agencies. The team will help schools create and implement safety plans; 
  4. For transparency and accountability a state dashboard will be built to inform the public about the status of various schools, any outbreaks and other data, including information on escalating levels of intervention up to legal enforcement. 

Details on the safety plan for reopening schools by spring is online at: www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CID/DCDC/Pages/COVID-19/Safe-Schools-for-All-Plan-Summary.aspx