How L.A. County — the epicenter of the state’s coronavirus outbreak — qualified for a faster reopening

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Densely-populated Los Angeles County received approval Friday to reopen barbershops, hair salons and restaurants for dining in, pushing the county further along on its path to ease restrictions as it grapples with the devastating economic impact of the pandemic.

The state’s permission comes for a county that remains the center of California’s coronavirus outbreak, home to about half of all the known coronavirus infections and COVID-19 deaths statewide. As of Friday, L.A. County’s death toll stood at 2,290.

Surrounding Orange, Riverside, Ventura, San Bernardino and Santa Barbara counties have all also previously been granted a variance by the state and have begun reopening more businesses.

L.A. County applied for the variance late Wednesday, with county Supervisor Kathryn Barger announcing the county “has achieved necessary readiness criteria.” 

“The only reason we were able to successfully submit a variance, was because of all the work everyone has done throughout our county,” the county’s public health director, Barbara Ferrer, said.

California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said though the case numbers are much higher in L.A. County, “their enormous increase in testing within Los Angeles County is identifying areas of the county that need focus.”

In the application to the state, L.A. County attested to having the average number of COVID-19  hospitalizations go down 1% during the past week, during which time, the coronavirus positivity rate was at 6.7% — that’s lower than the state’s requirement of less than 8%. 

Though the county reports hundreds of cases each day, officials emphasized that it’s partly due to expanded coronavirus testing. So far, 51,562 people have tested positive for the coronavirus across the county.

L.A. County reported testing 148,835 residents in the seven days before applying, and also attested to having enough resources to test more than 75% of its population — which the state required. 

Besides an expanded testing capacity, the county additionally needed to show it has clear guidelines and resources to protect essential workers to be granted a faster reopening by the state.

County officials also attested to having a COVID-19 surveillance plan, citing mass testing at nursing homes, jails and shelters. 

And with 1,759 employed to track down contacts of those infected and isolate people to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the county attested to having a contact tracing capacity larger than the state’s required minimum, which is 15 tracers for every 100,000 people in the population. 

The state also requires counties to be able to shelter at least 15% of those who are homeless. L.A. County reported acquired 4,700 hotel and motel rooms to house the homeless through Project RoomKey, and set up 300 shelters. 

Officials estimate these would house 6,769 of L.A. County’s projected 45,000 homeless individuals. It’s unclear how many of those rooms still sit empty.

And although officials initially feared a surge in COVID-19 cases that would overwhelm hospitals, L.A. County’s officials have said for weeks that hospitals across the county have enough beds and ventilators to meet demand and any potential spike.  

That fulfilled another requirement by the state: “Hospital capacity, including ICU beds and ventilators, and adequate PPE is available to handle standard health care capacity, current COVID-19 cases, as well as a potential surge due to COVID-19.”

L.A. County officials attested to having over 2,300 ventilators and more than 3,200 hospital beds that could be brought in if needed.  

The county also said its work is ongoing to protect the most vulnerable in skilled nursing facilities, which have been among the hardest hit amid the pandemic. Officials said 33% of the nursing homes have enough personal protective equipment to last two weeks, but the county regularly distributes more to those in urgent need. 

Mark Ghaly said the state is working with the county to make sure there’s enough testing at skilled nursing facilities, and looking into the pandemic’s impact on communities of color.

Ferrer has said that just last week, the county wasn’t eligible to apply for the faster reopening from the state. But that changed this week as the county’s testing and contact tracing rates have increased  and the positivity rate for the coronavirus went down. 

L.A. County’s public health department is tracking and documenting the metrics online, including the seven-day average number of COVID-19 deaths, which as of Friday was down 18% for all groups.

But even as more spaces reopen and the numbers show some progress in containing the spread of the virus, the county’s public health director, Barbara Ferrer, warned that “there’s a lot at stake.”

“The actions we take now are essential to to making sure that people don’t become seriously ill, don’t overwhelm our hospitals, and we save people’s lives,” she said. “It’s never been more important as individuals, businesses and institutions to use the tools that we have available to take care of each other and to continue to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

Officials have warned that more people out can mean more infections, more hospitalizations and more deaths.

“The actions that we take today affect what we’ll see in terms of cases, hospitalizations and deaths several weeks from now,” Ferrer said.

Director of Health Services Dr. Christina Ghaly said it’s still too early to tell if there has been a spike in infections as a result of more spaces being allowed to reopen in recent weeks.

“If we do see an uptick in cases in a couple of weeks from now, it will likely mean that there’s already been two to four weeks of increasing transmission by that time,” Ghaly said. “So at this point, we could be in the midst of a new upward curve, or transmission may not have increased at all. We just don’t know yet.”

During a news conference earlier this week, Ferrer was asked about whether the county is moving too quickly with reopening more spaces, and she said, “I feel confident that we’re moving forward in a manner that’s very respectful of the resources we have here.” 

She has emphasized that the county has adopted a phased approach to reopening, and more spaces will gradually open up as the county approaches the July 4 date that was previously announced as a goal for reopening. 

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