L.A. County’s coronavirus death toll tops 2,000 as officials announce progress in slowing spread

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Los Angeles County’s coronavirus death toll topped 2,000 Thursday, marking a “very sad milestone” as officials reported some progress in slowing the spread of COVID-19.

The county recently hit a promising turning point, with the coronavirus transmission rate reaching its lowest level since virus first arrived in the county.

“This is very good news, and it shows that what we’re doing over the past few weeks — staying home, the physical distancing, wearing our cloth face coverings — has resulted in a reduced number of infections,” the county’s public health director Barbara Ferrer said.

L.A. County has also been running serology tests with a team from USC, working to find previous coronavirus infections to paint a clearer picture of how widespread the virus is in the county. The most recent batch of results showed that 2.1% of adult residents have coronavirus antibodies, compared to 4.1% in April, according to Ferrer.

“These results also gave us some good news and demonstrated the effectiveness of your efforts to slow the spread,” she said. “It is very likely that our countywide COVID-19 prevalence rate has not increased at all between March and April.”

Coronavirus deaths and cases confirmed in L.A. County since March.  (L.A. Department of Public Health)
Coronavirus deaths and cases confirmed in L.A. County since March. (L.A. Department of Public Health)

Officials reported another 46 deaths and 1,204 coronavirus cases Thursday, bringing the total number of known infections to 42,037 in L.A. County.

And while the number of deaths is high, accounting for about half of the state’s COVID-19 fatalities, Ferrer said the seven-day average number of deaths per day is decreasing.

The county currently averages about 37 deaths per day — that’s a 12% decrease from the previous seven-day average.

“We continue to be moving in the right direction,” Ferrer said.

Though the county still hasn’t reached its goal of testing 15,000 residents for the coronavirus each day, it has ramped up its capacity. Sites across L.A. County can test 13,332 people for the virus daily — that’s up from 11,404 daily tests last week.

The three-day average for the number of people hospitalized for the respiratory illness is also down 15%, with an average of 1,532 hospitalized each day across the county’s hospitals. Projections show that the county has an adequate supply of hospital beds and ventilators to meet demand.

So far, just over 6,000 people who tested positive for the coronavirus have been hospitalized.

“We’re meeting most targets in terms of having an adequate supply of personal protective equipment for our healthcare workers in our hospitals and across other parts of our healthcare system,” Ferrer said. “Though this remains something where we can be where we can improve.”

While more than 60% of the county’s hospitals have enough N95 masks, face shields and gloves, only 57% of hospitals have enough gowns to last 15 days.

Such metrics help guide decisions about reopening the local economy in a way that won’t result in a spike in infections that can overwhelm hospitals, officials said.

“Through our recovery journey as we’re all out of our homes more, it may become more difficult to slow the spread, but it is far from impossible,” Ferrer said. “Because of the 14-day incubation period of COVID-19, the actions we’re taking today will impact our key recovery numbers in two to three weeks.”

The health director urged residents and businesses to continue practicing and implementing physical distancing protocols and using face coverings at public spaces and when seeking services, even as more spaces reopen.

“As we hike our trails, go to our beaches, and use our other outdoor spaces, we can all take responsibility for creating safety for the people who work at these sites, and the others who are using these spaces,” Ferrer said.

While counties across the state move to reopen more businesses and public spaces, officials have repeatedly warned that densely-populated L.A. County may reopen at a slower pace than other counties.

Officials said Wednesday that the county’s economy has taken a devastating hit, with more than 1 million unemployment claims filed and most layoffs affecting lower-income jobs.

Ferrer said that 76% of all the county’s cases are among people between the ages of 18 and 65.

“This is the age group that makes up the majority of our workforce,” she said. “So as more people are going back to work, it’s an important reminder that people at the workplace may be infected, even if they aren’t feeling sick.”

L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn on Thursday sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom, urging him to allow retail businesses statewide to reopen under the same health protocols that essential retail businesses have been allowed to operate under. 

The governor has adopted a phased approach to reopening the economy, beginning with locations deemed at “low risk” for the spread of the virus. Currently, certain retailers are allowed to reopen for curbside pick-up and delivery only.

“What seemed to be a necessary measure at the early onset of this crisis has unintentionally created winners and losers in this ‘pandemic economy,’ with large retail businesses able to operate, while small retail businesses are struggling and limited to curbside pickup,” Hahn said in a written statement.  “This needs to change.”

Hahn wants businesses to be allowed to reopen, but in limited capacity and with face coverings required and physical distancing protocols in place.

Asked about Hahn’s proposal, county Supervisor Hilda Solis stressed that stores allowed to stay open are providing essential goods like food and sanitation supplies that residents needed, and they’ve all had to step up and implement public safety plans, which took a while.

She said smaller businesses would take a lot more time to get there too.

“I want to see that we really pay attention to the data that’s been presented by Dr. Ferrer on an ongoing basis,” Solis said. “It looks like we are improving. I wish that we could speed things up, but I would be very remiss if I were to say that because we have to follow along the lines that we are prescribed by the governor of California, and I think that we want to adhere to that as best we can.”

Hahn also said that officials acknowledge the toll the pandemic has taken on those who have lost their jobs and said county officials have been working to try to provide some relief to residents.

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