While empathizing with anti-police brutality protesters, Los Angeles County’s top health official warned Monday about how crowding at protests could drive the spread of COVID-19.
“This is, of course, a briefing about COVID-19. But the events in Minneapolis and the response to those events are overwhelming,” Health Director Barbara Ferrer said, referring to days of protests across L.A. and other local cities following the death of George Floyd. She said inequities in police treatment mirror the inequalities seen in the U.S. public health system.
“The science is clear — the root cause of health inequities is racism and discrimination and how it limits access to the very opportunities and resources,” Ferrer said, later turning her attention to the impact local demonstrations could have on the viral outbreak.
Some protests have been more crowded than others, some participants and others wearing facial coverings and some not. Ferrer said any effect that lack of social distancing has on the spread of COVID-19 won’t be seen for another “three to four weeks.”
“How we behave today shows up in our numbers three to four weeks from now,” Ferrer said, explaining she’s most concerned about hospitals being overwhelmed if there’s a surge.
Ferrer reported another 22 COVID-19-related deaths and 978 new cases on Monday, bringing the total known infections to 55,968. The death toll now stands at 2,384. Among the recent fatalities is the first death of a pregnant woman and her baby in L.A. County from COVID-19, according to Ferrer. The woman had “significant underlying health conditions,” she said.
“To the family and friends of the woman and the baby passed away … we’re deeply sorry for your loss,” Ferrer said, noting 228 pregnant women have tested positive. “There have been 52 live births and four non-live births among women who tested positive for COVID-19.”
Nursing home residents continue to face the highest death toll of any single group — making up 89% of the 1,272 people who died after living in institutional settings such as nursing facilities, jails, shelters and treatment centers. Staff at skilled nursing facilities make up 27 of the 39 medical workers who have lost their lives to COVID-19 in the county, Ferrer said.
As she first spoke about recent protests, Ferrer said black residents overall experience an “earlier onset of heart disease, hypertension and diabetes and earlier deaths.”
“When I report each week that we have seen elevated numbers of black deaths in this county due to COVID-19, I am reporting on the consequences of these longstanding inequities,” Ferrer said, referring to what she described as an institutional lack of resources to care.
Still, the demonstrations have also caused some concern among local officials that they could lead to further spread of the virus.
“We could be back to square one in three weeks,” L.A. County Supervisors Kathryn Barger told KTLA on Sunday as crowds gathered along Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica.
But many have felt compelled to protest.
Hasani Sinclair, a 38-year-old high school teacher, told the L.A. Times he regularly wore a mask and followed guidelines from health officials throughout the viral outbreak. But he couldn’t stay home amid the massive demonstrations.
“I cannot in good conscience let this moment pass me by,” he told the Times, saying police brutality “has been a silent cause of death for years and years and years” for black men like himself.
Ferrer told reporters that health officials have not given law enforcement agencies any instructions on how to practice social distancing when arresting and detaining protesters. She added: “We’re happy to reach out to law enforcement.”
Hundreds have been taken into custody during demonstrations, potentially being kept in close quarters at facilities where they are detained.
Amid the reopening of businesses, parks and beaches, leading health experts have already started to predict a higher number of deaths. On Friday, hair salons and barbershops were among the latest businesses allowed to operate again.
The University of Washington, frequently cited by the White House, projected on May 29 that 12,591 people in California will die from COVID-19 by Aug. 4.
On May 26, the researchers predicted 7,558 deaths by that time. They explained the increased number of projected deaths in a statement: “Mobility patterns have been drifting upward in California, a factor in the state’s higher projected cumulative COVID-19 deaths.”