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La Jolla’s new coronavirus cases are dropping and more people are getting vaccinated — now what?

Chateau La Jolla resident Butch Hansen receives his first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

While La Jolla is not out of the coronavirus woods yet, the number of new cases reported to the county each week in the 92037 ZIP code has been declining.

As of March 19, 16,811 La Jollans — almost 40 percent of the population — had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and with those eligible for vaccination recently expanded to include people ages 16-64 with preexisting conditions, that number is expected to rise.

But — while you may be tempted to ditch the face mask and restart your social life — there are still guidelines and regulations in place for what fully vaccinated people can do.

The San Diego County Health & Human Services Agency posts an updated list at 8 a.m. daily of coronavirus cases by ZIP code. Beginning in early February, just after COVID-19 vaccines started becoming available to senior citizens, the number of new cases in 92037 plateaued at 31 each week. On Feb. 28, the number of new cases increased by 24 from the week before. The next week, it increased by 19. Then 12.

Last week through March 19, the number climbed by only five from the week before (though the La Jolla Light’s weekly tally is measured from Tuesday to Tuesday and the number was obtained Friday, so the week was not yet complete).

With more people getting vaccinated, some are left wondering what they can do safely, both with other fully vaccinated people and with unvaccinated people.

What can I do?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued its first set of recommendations for fully vaccinated people. Someone is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the second dose in a two-dose series, such as with the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or two weeks after a single-dose vaccine, like Johnson & Johnson’s.

Sumit Chanda, director of the immunity and pathogenesis program for the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in La Jolla, is the co-senior author of a new study that indicated a leprosy drug may be able to treat cases of COVID-19 if detected early.

According to the CDC, fully vaccinated people can visit with other fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing; visit indoors without masks or physical distancing with unvaccinated people from a single household who are at low risk of severe COVID-19 infection; and refrain from quarantine and testing following a known exposure if asymptomatic.

However, also among the recommendations are that fully vaccinated people continue to wear masks and practice physical distancing in public and when visiting unvaccinated people from multiple households; avoid medium-size and large in-person gatherings; get tested if experiencing COVID-19 symptoms; and follow guidelines issued by employers and the CDC.

Andrea LaCroix, an epidemiologist at UC San Diego, said those guidelines were issued in an “abundance-of-caution framework.”

“The thing the CDC is worried about is that a vaccinated person could spread it to unvaccinated people, but I think it is unlikely,” she said. “The vaccine keeps the virus from replicating and taking hold. If [a vaccinated person] gets a viral particle in their nose, it is not going to live long. If you are already vaccinated, it’s highly unlikely you are able to spread it; the CDC just hasn’t ruled that out.”

UC San Diego epidemiologist Andrea LaCroix
“If you are already vaccinated [against COVID-19], it’s highly unlikely you are able to spread it,” says UC San Diego epidemiologist Andrea LaCroix. However, she is concerned about variants.
(Courtesy)

LaCroix, however, is worried about COVID-19 variants and whether vaccines will be effective against them. “There could be another emergence of COVID that could set this back many months,” she said. “What would keep that from happening is for us to get viral transmission to zero. It can’t come back if it is not out there at all. It can’t morph into a new variant if it is not out there.”

As such, following the CDC guidelines on mask wearing and physical distancing should still be followed, she said.

How did so many La Jollans get vaccinated?

The county made COVID-19 vaccines available to those 65 and older on Jan. 23. About 19 percent of La Jolla’s population is within that demographic, according to population estimates by the San Diego Association of Governments.

But apparently it’s not just age that has worked in La Jolla’s favor. A KPBS report in February using data released by the county stated that residents in wealthier ZIP codes that are heavily White are more likely to have been vaccinated.

According to SANDAG data, the number of residents in La Jolla who make more than $125,000 a year outpaces the rest of the region, and at least 70 percent of La Jolla’s population is White. La Jolla’s 92037 is among the ZIP codes with the highest vaccination rates.

LaCroix said race and income factor into vaccination rates through a combination of access to health care, flexibility with work and access to technology to find out how and where to get vaccines and make appointments.

“Affluent White communities have excellent access to health care that communities of color are less likely to have,” she said. “It is also the case that White people have less vaccine hesitancy because of our experience getting health care.”

Further, she said, most people cannot sacrifice the amount of time it takes at San Diego’s vaccination superstations.

“My husband got it at the Petco Park superstation and it took half a day,” LaCroix said. “Most people don’t have the luxury of taking a half-day off work.”

The appointment-making system has created “enormous barriers” for some, she said. “Many people have relied on family members because the computer access to make appointments has been complex and difficult.”

People wait to get into the COVID-19 vaccine superstation at RIMAC Arena at UC San Diego.
People wait to get into the COVID-19 vaccine superstation at RIMAC Arena at UC San Diego.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

How can I help?

While La Jolla’s vaccination rates are high, other areas in the region — and organizations that serve them — are still struggling. And with vaccination rates making it more acceptable to be around others, various service organizations have volunteer opportunities. Representatives of the county health department and the city said local partners need financial donations and volunteers.

“When the vaccine supply becomes ample, I think these sites will become more neighborhood-based instead of your larger superstations, and [local health organizations] are talking about not having enough volunteers to staff these sites,” LaCroix said. “If you have a health background, you can participate in the process in various ways. … We need people to fill syringes accurately, check people in and make sure they can get the vaccine and observe people for allergic effects.”

The UC San Diego Health website says it currently is not accepting new volunteers at vaccination sites “because of the outpouring of community support.” However, it is accepting financial donations to the COVID-19 Vaccine Response Fund, along with meals and groceries for caregivers. To learn more, visit health.ucsd.edu/coronavirus/Pages/donate.aspx.

LaCroix also suggested supporting local food banks, senior service organizations and educational outlets in the form of tutoring students who may have fallen behind during distance learning.

Feeding San Diego, which aims to connect people facing hunger with nutritious meals, needs volunteers 18 or older who have a food handler card, according to spokesperson Dana Williams, a Bird Rock resident.

“People can register to volunteer … at our distribution center to help sort and pack food boxes for distribution,” Williams said. “Volunteers do not have to be vaccinated to volunteer, but everyone is required to wear masks, and we limit the number of volunteers we accept so we can ensure safe social distancing in our distribution center. Volunteers who help at distributions are outside but are still required to wear masks.” Learn more or register at feedingsandiego.org/coronavirus-volunteer.

At La Jolla Meals on Wheels and La Jolla Friendly Visitors, which support seniors in the community, volunteer opportunities will reopen in April. It is preferred, but not required, that volunteers be vaccinated.

“The pandemic has increased our awareness of seniors living alone … every day,” said Jane Semelsberger, La Jolla Meals on Wheels program director. “Our volunteers bring a smile to all our clients’ faces, and having more volunteers is always a good thing for us. After a year of COVID-19, we have all learned that giving back to the community is very rewarding and much needed.”

Those interested in volunteering for meal delivery or as a “friendly visitor” to homebound residents can fill out a volunteer form at lajollamealsonwheels.org.

Across the broader San Diego area, the city has local partners that also are seeking help and volunteers. Learn more at sandiego.gov/coronavirus. ◆