Our View | The COVID-19 Math Problem

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By The Signal Editorial Board

Bear with us while we do a little math today.

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled a new plan for the phased reopening of California’s economy. 

He acknowledged the plan for recovery would be “stringent and slow,” but the governor even then was soft-pedaling it. It’s more like “glacial and nearly impossible.”

It came with a pretty graphic depicting four color-coded tiers to show how much a county can reopen its businesses, schools and institutions, based on two primary factors: Over any 14 days, it is based on the county’s COVID-19 daily case rate, computed as the number of new cases, per day, per 100,000 residents. And, during the same 14 days, the county’s “test positivity rate,” which is often misunderstood. The test positivity rate is not the percentage of the population that tests positive. Rather, it’s the percentage of tests that come back positive. 

In addition to reaching the new case and test positivity rates for the next tier, a county must remain in a tier for three weeks before moving up, and you can only move up one tier at a time.

L.A. County is in the “purple” tier — the most restrictive one. In the purple tier, COVID-19 is deemed to be “widespread,” with more than seven daily new cases per 100,000 population and a test positivity rate higher than 8%.

The county’s population as of 2019 was listed at 10.04 million. Let’s just round that down to 10 million to keep the math simple. 

L.A. County’s seven-day average test positivity rate as of Friday was 4.8%, so that bodes well. 

But a county has to meet both criteria to move up, not just one. That daily case rate — therein lies the problem. 

To move to the next level — “red,” or “substantial” presence of the virus — the county would need to be below seven new daily cases per 100,000 population over a 14-day period. So, fewer than 700 a day, for 14 days. You know when the last time that happened was? Around early-April, when the pandemic in L.A. County was still in its infancy.

The last time L.A. County had fewer than 700 cases for ONE day was in mid-May. 

On Friday, the county reported 1,439 new cases. The daily average for the past 14 days is right around 1,300.

If you’re hoping we can soon get to the “orange” tier, indicating “moderate” virus presence, which would allow more businesses to open, albeit with modifications, the county would have to show a 14-day average of fewer than four cases per 100,000 population. 

Fewer than 400 a day, on average, for two weeks. That hasn’t happened since March.

To get to the gold standard, the “yellow” tier, in which most indoor businesses could open, with modifications — so, some semblance of “normal” — the county would need to have less than one daily case per 100,000 population. 

That’s less than 100 per day, for 14 days. March 22 is the most recent day when the county had fewer than 100 cases in ONE day.

The point? The governor’s color-coded chart may look pretty, but it paints an ugly picture for communities that want to get back to school, work, sports and more. The governor, in unveiling the tiered plan for recovery, “buried the lede” as we say in journalism.

The lede? L.A. County and California aren’t getting anywhere near normal until COVID-19 goes away. What we can each do, of course, is follow the health orders, wear masks, avoid gatherings, etc., to help reduce the spread. 

But meanwhile, you’d better keep your fingers crossed that those vaccine trials pay off soon. Because otherwise, we’re in the land of color-coded COVID-19 shutdowns for a long haul.

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