Santa Monica, CALIFORNIA—May 30, 2021--People flock to Santa Monica Pier and Santa Monica beach on Memorial Day, May 30, 2021. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
People flock to the Santa Monica Pier and Santa Monica Beach on Memorial Day as coronavirus cases continued to tumble statewide. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

California has one of the lowest coronavirus transmission levels in the U.S.

The low coronavirus case rate underscores California’s continued progress toward extinguishing the health crisis a week ahead of its planned reopening.

California continues to record one of the lowest COVID-19 case rates in the nation, underscoring its sustained progress toward extinguishing the pandemic a week ahead of the state’s planned reopening.

As of Monday, California’s seven-day case rate per 100,000 people was 11, tied with Nebraska for the third-lowest among all states, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. California is behind only Vermont, with a 6.9 seven-day case rate, and South Dakota, with 9.2

The latest update knocked California just outside the threshold necessary to meet the CDC’s definition of having a low level of community coronavirus transmission, an assessment based on the number of new cases confirmed statewide over the last week as well as the rate at which conducted tests were coming back positive.

Earlier in the day, California and Vermont were the only two states in that exclusive club — which requires a seven-day case rate under 10 per 100,000 residents and a rate of positive test results of less than 5%.

Now, Vermont stands alone in the low ranking, because South Dakota’s test positivity rate is still too high.

Despite the slight back step into the CDC’s much broader category of moderate transmission, which encompasses areas with rates of positive test results from 5% to 7.99% and case rates from 10 to 49.99, California continues to measure up well.

Its case rate is less than half the nationwide figure of 28, and also below those seen in Florida, 63.6; Pennsylvania, 29.9; Texas, 27.6; New York City, 18.7; and the rest of New York state, 20.7.

For more than a month, California has been among the states with the lowest coronavirus case rates — a dramatic turnaround from the fall and winter, when a viral tsunami overwhelmed the state and pushed hospitals close to the breaking point.

The progress California has made is particularly pronounced when looking at raw case counts.

During the height of the last surge, the state was recording, on average, more than 40,000 new cases per day. Over the last week, California has reported a daily average of about 900 new cases, data compiled by The Times show.

According to the CDC, transmission is considered moderate in the vast majority of the nation.

But five states — Colorado, Wyoming, Florida, Washington and Utah — are considered to have substantial transmission; all have seven-day case rates that are over 50 per 100,000 residents.

During a briefing last week, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the nationwide weekly average of newly confirmed coronavirus cases had fallen by 94% since its peak in January.

“This is the type of news I like to deliver,” she said Thursday, “and certainly these data are encouraging and uplifting as we battle this pandemic.”

Despite the state’s strides, however, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday the danger posed by COVID-19 had not evaporated.

“This disease has not been extinguished,” he said. “It’s not vanished. It’s not taking the summer months off.”

Newsom also said California’s state of emergency order — which gives him and health officials broad authority to temporarily impose new rules and restrictions — would remain in place beyond what had been billed as the state’s full reopening on June 15.

The governor’s office later said that preserving the emergency declaration “ensures that the state can continue to respond quickly to evolving conditions as the pandemic persists” and that Newsom would end it “once conditions no longer warrant an emergency response.”

The revelation drew swift condemnation from Republicans, who have long objected to the scope of Newsom’s emergency powers.

State officials have said California’s progress, as well as its long-sought wide reopening, has been made possible through the continued rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.

California is one of 13 states where 70% or more adults have received at least one vaccine dose, a threshold the Biden administration is seeking to hit nationwide by July 4.

However, more work needs to be done. About 68% of eligible Californians 12 and older have gotten at least one shot, but only 52.7% are fully vaccinated — meaning they either received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine or both required doses of Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna.

And with the inoculation campaign now more than 5 months old, experts and officials acknowledge that reaching those who have yet to roll up their sleeves will be challenging and entail both tearing down any remaining barriers to vaccine access and knocking down concerns or misinformation surrounding the shots’ efficacy or safety.

“Getting from 30% to 40% of people vaccinated, that’s an easy 10%,” Newsom said recently. “Moving from 70% of adults to 75% and beyond, that’s stubborn. That’s difficult work.”

State officials are hoping the chance for cash will be enough to tempt some of the remaining holdouts.

On Friday, the initial winners of the state’s vaccine lottery were drawn — with 15 Californians securing $50,000 prizes.

Another 15 $50,000 winners will be selected this Friday, and the drawings will conclude June 15, when 10 residents will win $1.5 million each.

As part of the $116.5-million incentive program, 2 million vaccine recipients (those with a first shot as of May 27 or later) will also be eligible for either a $50 prepaid gift card or a $50 grocery card.

Though it’s probably too soon to determine whether the 12-day-old program is having the desired effect — there’s a delay in accounting for all the vaccines administered, and the recent Memorial Day holiday weekend may have skewed the data — California is not alone in turning to prizes in hopes of boosting flagging inoculation rates.

States and private companies across the country are offering a variety of items, including cash giveaways and free beer, in hopes of getting more Americans inoculated.

“If you’re on the fence,” Newsom said, “if you’re just a little bit hesitant or you just were unwilling in the past but all of a sudden you think, ‘Wait a second, I could really use $50,000,’ we’re doing all this to encourage that and to get you to think anew and, hopefully, act anew.”

Perhaps the most powerful incentive of all, though, isn’t a lottery ticket, but a ticket back to something more closely resembling pre-pandemic normality.

Given the protection afforded by the vaccines, officials are increasingly in agreement that those who are inoculated not only can resume more activities but can do so without having to abide by the strict masking and social distancing requirements that have long been a hallmark of the COVID-19 era.

The California Department of Public Health on Monday updated its guidance pertaining to testing, now stating that fully vaccinated individuals don’t need to undergo diagnostic screenings in nonhealthcare workplace settings.

So long as they’re not showing symptoms, fully vaccinated people also largely don’t need to be tested after being exposed to someone who has or is suspected of having COVID-19 — unless they live or work in congregate settings or work in crowded environments such as food-processing plants — and don’t need to be tested before entering venues, businesses or events, the guidance states.

“As more Californians become vaccinated, adapting testing guidance to focus testing on high-risk populations and individuals who have not been vaccinated allows us to further mitigate the spread of the virus,” the department explained in unveiling the changes.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.