Health & Science

Unsanitized: The Battle of Los Angeles

Unsanitized: The Battle of Los Angeles

More than half of the deaths in L.A. County have come just since Thanksgiving, as the outbreak accelerates. (Photo: Nick Bradshaw/flickr CC 2.0)


Just a reminder: this is the last edition of Unsanitized, though it’s not the last time I’ll be writing a daily report. In fact, you’ll get another one tomorrow. We are rebranding Unsanitized as First 100, a look at the first one hundred days of the Biden presidency, with a special focus on the pandemic, his greatest early challenge. It was important to me to chronicle the coronavirus crisis as a first draft of history, and there are still many chapters to write in that story. But they are intertwined with a new presidency, which deserves its own story. So goodbye but not farewell, and hello again tomorrow.

Meanwhile, for our first response today…

This Ain’t No Disco, This is L.A.

I’ve been a Los Angeles resident for about 18 years. I’ve never seen my city hurting more than right now, experiencing a severe blow from the pandemic. For a time last week, one person in the city was dying every six minutes from COVID, though I believe this has tapered off to one every seven minutes. A separate study showed the infection rate at one out of every three people in the county, which covers 88 cities, not just L.A., and is home to over 10 million residents. The official toll of cases is over 1 million, but that estimated infection rate would put the number at three times that.

The deaths are coming so fast that the South Coast Air Quality Management District lifted the usual limits for cremations for the first time ever, so crematoriums can work through the backlog of bodies. There are roughly twice as many deaths happening here than usual. Mortuaries have turned away families, just as hospitals have.

More than half of the deaths in L.A. County have come just since Thanksgiving, as the outbreak accelerates. And this is at a time when, at least in theory, there’s been a stay-at-home order in place for a couple months.

Oh yeah, and although hospitalizations have fallen over the past week, we’re hitting that false dawn moment. The B.1.1.7 variant and another more transmissible mutation seen in Denmark have both been detected here. The Denmark mutation, known as L452R, is becoming dominant in the state.

Los Angeles is uniquely positioned to suffer from a particularly bad COVID outbreak. The city is dense, yes, but more important it’s crowded, with lots of small apartments or detached homes with multiple people living inside. If one person leaves the home to work everyone’s at risk. The city has high concentrations of Latino residents, who are dying at elevated rates. It’s a much older population than portrayed on television; with the warm climate and a level of poverty meaning many can’t retire to some other haven, the elderly often stay put. And jobs that take people outside the home—landscaping, for example—keep people circulating, whether they want to or not. The large essential workforce includes factory jobs, which still exist here, and even meatpacking. The significant homeless population has seen outbreaks as well.

In other words, the city’s extremes are working against them: extreme variations in wealth, and a service economy where the poor cater to the rich. These lessons must be remembered once the virus becomes a memory: the way we allow people to live in Los Angeles is what is allowing people to die.

On the other side of the tragedy, the vaccine rollout has been particularly poor, in Los Angeles and California as a whole. The chair of the county board of supervisors, former U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, ordered that vaccines be made available to everyone 65 and over starting on Thursday. Dodger Stadium was recently converted into a vaccination site, and five other large-scale centers are rolling out. The city school superintendent has offered to convert schools into vaccination sites. But so far, supply problems and a lack of staff have made the process unpredictable and far too slow. Venerable local columnist Steve Lopez said he was easily able to schedule a time to get the vaccine, but only in Anchorage, Alaska.

The struggles of Los Angeles are a microcosm of the struggles in the pandemic, only with a magnified lens. And it reflects the struggles of a country to care about each other, to communicate with each other, to understand each other. I hope we learn as we hit the other side.

A Memorial

It’s hard to believe, but tonight’s COVID memorial event, with 400 lights inside the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial, is the only formal event and just about the only recognition of the dead from our government during this pandemic. Fittingly, it doesn’t come from the guy on the way out but from the President-elect; the memorial is part of the inaugural program.

We just hit 400,000 dead Americans from this virus, and for close to a year, no leader in the country has stopped for a moment to say they’re sorry for all the loss. The lack of empathy hasn’t been the worst part of the Trump presidency; I am given to look to substance over style. But symbols do matter, and the symbol of the last year is of a pathetic, selfish wretch who leads a selfish movement, one that has never bothered to think about 400,000 of their fellow citizens who’ve been lost because they’re too busy fuming about the personal sacrifice of having to wear a mask in a 7-11. I’m pleased that we’ll throw that symbol in the garbage starting at noon tomorrow. And let’s make remembering those lost in this tragedy more than a once-a-year event.

Number of Vaccine Doses Given

14.7 million as of Monday, up from 14.3 million on Sunday. The holiday weekend appears to have slowed up vaccine delivery, which is appalling. What would have fit a national day of service better than vaccine distribution?

Today I Learned

David Dayen

David Dayen is the author of Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud, winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize. Follow him on Twitter: @ddayen.