Public health chief Barbara Ferrer: 95% of Angelenos have yet to be infected

LA County has reported more than 600 deaths because of the novel coronavirus. That’s about half the deaths reported in all of California.

We check in with Barbara Ferrer, LA County’s public health director, points out what might be behind those deaths:

“One is there's always a lag between the time we identify people who are positive with COVID-19 through the testing that's available and the time that people both will get ill, and then seriously ill, and then for a number of people, they'll pass away. And that doesn't happen like the day that we report that we had 10,000 cases. … In fact, we often will report the rise in cases before we'll see the rise in deaths.”

She says we’re now seeing a slight decrease in cases but a significant increase in deaths. 

She identifies another factor in LA County that’s contributing to the mortality increase: “The rise in the number of residents who are living in nursing homes, who are both positive and in fact end up passing away as well.”

Nursing home residents already need medical care and are especially vulnerable because they live in a congregate setting, according to Ferrer. 

Infection control processes have been adopted at those homes since February, and she applauds the staff for their work. However, she notes, “These processes really were sort of embedded in this understanding that what we had to do was make sure that employees who were sick didn't come into the facilities. But it turns out now that a lot of people who are shedding the virus and can infect other people are asymptomatic.”

No symptoms, but you can still spread the virus 

LA County reports some 14,000 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19. 

On Monday, USC and the LA County Department of Public Health published a new joint study that estimates some 300,000 people in the county (4.1% of the population) have been infected. Some have no idea that they’re carrying the virus. Others had mild or severe symptoms. 

“That's a serology test to test it for antibodies in a representative sample of people across the county. And if you take that 4% and you extrapolate it to LA County's population as a whole, you start seeing numbers between 300,000 to 400,000 people who probably at some point in time came in contact with this virus, developed antibodies in their response to the virus,” explains Ferrer. 

“Evidence now says that they're, in fact, able to spread the infection to other people with mild illness and with no illness at all. And that's a game changer for us. And I think the USC study (that we collaborated with them on) reinforces the fact that many more people have the virus here, and many more people were capable of spreading the virus. And a lot of those people may not have known that they were infected at the point that they were passing along the virus,” she says. 

As city leaders and lawmakers talk about reopening the economy, Ferrer points out it’s important to remember: 

“Ninety-five percent of the people here have yet to be infected. So there's a lot of people that can still be infected. And a certain number of those people who will be infected will go on to develop serious illness. And some people will even die. So we still have to try to do everything we can to not have too many people that are sick and overwhelm our health care system, and not have people die.” 

You can still go to the grocery store. Ferrer’s guidance: 

When shopping: wear face coverings, wash hands (or use hand sanitizer) before and after going inside the store, and stay six feet away from others at all times. 

Back at home: Wipe down food containers, wash fruits/vegetables and hands (again).

Don’t go to the store every day (there’s really no need). Do one or two week’s worth of shopping at a time.

If you're an elderly person or have underlying health conditions, don’t go out at all, and instead ask for help. 

“The county has some services that can help get food delivered. Use your neighbors or your friends. … If you have means, arrange for a delivery service for both your medications and your groceries because you really shouldn't be going out,” she says. 

“The older you get, the more risk you have for serious illness. And the same thing for people with underlying health conditions. I mean, the sad reality is 89% of people who have died across L.A. County have been people with underlying health conditions.” 

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Alex Tryggvadottir