Kevin Cody

Virus spread slows, County to ask Newsom’s permission to reopen restaurants

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New case counts in the beach cities and finally in Torrance are leveling off. But cases countywide continue to climb. Source: Los Angeles County Health Department. Chart by Bernard Wong/Subliminalmachines.com

by Ryan McDonald

Los Angeles County has made enough progress slowing the spread of the coronavirus that it can accelerate the easing of restrictions meant to slow its progress, including allowing for the immediate reopening of houses of worship and all retail establishments to in-store shopping, officials said Wednesday.

Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said the county’s hospital capacity, availability of personal protective equipment, and share of people testing positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, had all improved to the point that it would meet state criteria to move on to the next phase of reopening the economy.

County Supervisor Hilda Solis said the county would request permission from the governor to reopen restaurants and hair salons.

Wednesday offered a bit of optimism about a return to something approaching normalcy in the region, which has suffered a disproportionate share of the state’s COVID-19 deaths. Ferrer said the county has removed limitations that made its local health officer orders more restrictive than guidance from Sacramento. Even the name of the county’s health order has changed, from “Safer at Home” to “Safer at Work and in the Community.”

But the coronavirus remains a profound threat to the public health system. Ferrer reported 53 additional deaths from COVID-19 Wednesday, bringing the county’s total to 2,195, and 933 new positive tests, bringing the total to 48,700. Also on Wednesday, California surpassed 100,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and the nation recorded its 100,000th death from the disease. 

“There is a lot at stake as we reopen. More people being around one another can result in more transmission of COVID-19, which is more cases, and likely more hospitalizations and deaths. This is why it couldn’t be more important to take care of one another when out of homes,” she said.

Ferrer urged all people to wear a face covering when they would be in contact with people outside their household, and offered a potent hypothetical to underscore the ongoing risks.

“If there are two million more people going to offices, stores and houses of worship now, and if even two percent of them are infected with COVID-19, we would have 40,000 people moving about that are capable of spreading this virus. And if each infected person transmits to even just one other person, there could be 80,000 people infected over a couple of weeks. And if we assume that five percent of people who are infected with COVID-19 may need to be hospitalized, that would be 4,000 additional folks who need a hospital bed. Without taking a lot of care to make sure that infected people do not infect others, we could easily get to a place where hospitals are overwhelmed,” Ferrer said.

The numbers cited in Ferrer’s hypothetical conform with previously announced estimates.

County officials said last week that the average number of people infected by each person who contracts COVID-19 has declined significantly, from about 3.5 people when the pandemic began, to a current figure of slightly less than one. Dr. Christina Ghaly, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, said last week that although the biological properties of the coronavirus make it highly contagious, social distancing and stay-at-home orders have limited its spread.

Of the 48,700 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past three months, 6,283 of them have been hospitalized at some point, around 13 percent. However, this figure has been declining.

“I want to note a steady decline in the percent of positive cases requiring hospitalization,” Ferrer said Wednesday.

There are now 1,477 people currently hospitalized with an active infection of COVID-19. Twenty-seven percent of these people are in an intensive care unit. Based on the public health department’s tabulation of the average number of available ICU spots over the last three days, if the same percentage of new infections in Ferrer’s hypothetical required a stay in an ICU, the county would still have enough spaces. However, the new cases would push the county to within 75 beds of its target for ICU capacity countywide.

The hardest figure to get a handle on from Ferrer’s hypothetical is the percentage of people who are infected. Although the number of positive tests results is recognized to undercount the actual number of cases, no one is sure by how much. Serology studies, which look at tests that show the presence of antibodies to COVID-19 but do not indicate whether the test-taker has an active infection, are being used in Southern California and elsewhere in an attempt to determine the prevalence of the disease.

The results so far have been inconclusive. One study, done in the Bay Area by two professors at Stanford, was panned for having a sample unlikely to be representative of the population. In Los Angeles County, the public health department is conducting its own serology study in partnership with USC. In a sample of about 1,000 people conducted over four days in May, found that 2.1 percent of those tested had antibodies for COVID-19. A previous sample, done the month before, found that 4.1 percent of those tested had antibodies. The USC study did not report how many of those displaying antibodies had an active infection. ER

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