‘Stay the course’: L.A. County health officials report progress in fight against COVID-19 but urge caution

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With calls for caution and for residents to “stay the course,” Los Angeles County’s public health director on Monday announced the county is once again beginning on a path of recovery after last month’s coronavirus surge.

“We have to continue to be diligent,” Health Director Barbara Ferrer said. “This is not a time to let down our guard.”

L.A. County now appears to meet five of the state’s six indicators for slowing the spread of COVID-19, Ferrer said.

Coronavirus testing numbers in L.A. County exceed the state’s threshold of performing more than 150 daily tests per 100,000 people, with the county reporting at least 181 tests performed each day for every 100,000 residents.

And with the seven-day coronavirus positivity rate now at around 6%, the county also meets the state’s threshold of having a testing positivity rate below 8%. The number may be affected by a backlog from a technical issue with the state’s reporting system, but Ferrer said officials believe “the steady decrease will hold” when the data is corrected.

The county is also meeting thresholds for both daily hospitalizations and hospital capacity, and has an adequate supply of both intensive care unit beds and ventilators.

But L.A. County’s coronavirus case rate — the number of positive cases per 100,000 people — is now at 295, which is significantly higher than the states’s threshold of having fewer than 100 cases per 100,000 people, Ferrer said.

The good news is that rate has dropped from 335 cases per 100,000 residents just last week, the health director said.

Hospitalization numbers — a key indicator the pandemic’s toll on the county — have been steadily declining in recent weeks after spiking in June and reaching record highs in July.  

There were 1,341 people hospitalized for COVID-19 Monday, 33% of them in intensive care units and 19% on ventilators.

But even with the progress made after state and local officials enacted tougher restrictions to limit coronavirus spread, the virus infection rate is still high in L.A. County, and Ferrer urged residents to remain steadfast in following guidelines like wearing masks and avoiding gatherings.

“I urge everyone, let’s just stay the course right now, keep closed indoor operations — that’s required — in the hopes that within weeks we are actually getting to a place where we can get off the state’s monitoring list,” Ferrer said.

After a troubling surge in mid-July, counties on the state’s monitoring list for heightened coronavirus activity were ordered by Gov. Gavin Newsom to close indoor activities at fitness centers, places of worship, offices for non-critical sectors, personal care services, such as hair salons and barbershops, and indoor malls.

Ferrer acknowledged that a mistake the county made in past months was not clearly communicating to residents how widespread the virus was when officials started reopening some sectors — before having to close them again due to the coronavirus surge that sent COVID-19 hospitalization numbers skyrocketing.

“I think a lot of us felt like, ‘OK, well, we’re getting back to normal’ — and we’re just not getting back to normal right now. We are creating a new normal,” she said.

L.A. County recorded 19 new COVID-19 deaths and another 1,185 cases Monday, bringing the countywide case total to 223,131 with 5,273 deaths. Sunday and Monday typically see lower-than-usual numbers due to a weekend reporting lag, according to the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

“The data suggests we’re headed in the right direction in reducing transmission of the virus, and this is a testament to all of the residents and businesses who understand and take to heart, their role in getting us to the other side of the pandemic,” Ferrer said.

The health director said there have been reports of parties, including weddings, happening despite health orders, and warned that they could lead to major coronavirus outbreaks.

“We’ve seen outbreaks from gatherings on college campuses, fraternity and sorority houses, restaurants, from our protests, churches, and at people’s homes, all across the country. And some of these gatherings have resulted in tragic loss of life and in serious illness,” she said.

Beachgoers create a forest of umbrellas as thousands seek refuge on the beach at Santa Monica Aug. 15, 2020. (Luis Sinco/ Los Angeles Times)
Beachgoers create a forest of umbrellas as thousands seek refuge on the beach at Santa Monica Aug. 15, 2020. (Luis Sinco/ Los Angeles Times)

Ferrer’s calls to avoid gatherings come after a heat wave with record-high temperatures had residents flocking to beaches over the weekend, with photos showing crowding at Venice and Santa Monica shorelines while air-conditioned indoor locations remained closed.

As scorching temperatures continue to grip the region, those heading to beaches and parks were asked to keep at least 6 feet of distance from others and to wear face coverings at all times.

“We need to work together to lower our case rate so we can get our children back to school and more people back to work,” Ferrer said in a Sunday statement.

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