Mayor Garcetti on ‘shelter-in-place’ concerns and protecting homeless populations

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Downtown LA is empty as most people stay inside due to coronavirus fears. Photo by Ted Soqui for KCRW.

Bay Area leaders are enforcing a “shelter-in-place” policy, which means residents aren’t allowed to leave home unless they’re buying food or medications, doing “essential” travel, or going for a hike, walk, or run. 

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti talks about whether this policy could come to LA, and how the city is trying to curb the spread of COVID-19 among people experiencing homelessness. 

How far is Los Angeles from a “shelter-in-place” order? San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said “time for half measures is over, and history will not forgive us for waiting.”

Garcetti: “It's not imminent. I've been in regular contact three or four times a day with Mayor Liccardo, where the infection rate is about 10 times higher. And some of the basic things that we've done here weren't in place two weeks ago at a similar point in their infection -- of shutting down bars and movie theaters, no dining in, gymnasiums, etc. So we are confident about a lot of the work that we've put in place now. 

But I will be straightforward with folks that, you know, nothing will be off the table. There won't be one day when that suddenly comes down out of nowhere. 

And people should be reminded: Up in the Bay Area, there's a lot of exceptions on that list. So it's not a complete shutdown the way you see in northern Italy.

… There's not actually that much space between what they're doing and what we're doing. Everybody who can stay home should be staying home. Everybody who can work from home probably should be at this point -- unless you're critical employees. … And thank God for them: the grocery clerk, the truck drivers, people working at the port, our first responders, and health care officials. Those folks are absolutely critical -- not just to our economy, but our response to COVID019. 

And we're a manufacturing hub here in L.A., producing some of the things that are helping us get through this. So we will continue, I think, to take steps, assess those steps. It won't come down suddenly -- one day we are  going to wake up and the whole city will be in lockdown. 

It'll be, I think, a gradual series of steps if we need to go further. Though most experts have said, ‘Look, in the places that we see, like in Italy, they hadn't gone as far as Los Angeles did as early in their infection.’ And so fingers crossed: that will make that big impact.”

You said their infection rate in the bay is 10 times the rate it is here. How do we know what the infection rate is here when there haven't been enough tests? 

“All of California is undercounting, I think, the number of cases. … Because of the testing debacle, and the dereliction of duty of not having enough tests in this nation. It's something I've gotten personally involved with. I know the governor has too -- to look for sources. And we're having to scramble as local and state governments to get that testing, and the testing capacity up and running both in our own labs and the government level and the private sector. 

… So point well taken. But if we're comparing the same technology today, it's 10 times more. So even if the rate is higher for both of us, it's 10 times higher up there. 

How many tests are available right now? 

“I don't have an exact number. That's the county public health department. But we have been told that the federal government will be putting a million tests out this week. And remember, you can have a lot of tests, but if you don't have the capacity to process them, it doesn't matter. 

But we have seen where we had zero private tests, as many as 2000 tests a day that are … processed, maybe as much as 5000 soon in San Juan Capistrano with Quest. There's a second company here in Southern California that thinks they can do thousands. 

Government generally doesn't do those tests. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health can and is doing the most critical tests. But they are never set up. They're more of a research test laboratory functioning as now a public health testing laboratory. So we will see in the coming days, I think, that private sector ability to meet what will be now thousands. 

But my goal is for us in Los Angeles to have a better sense. I'm very frustrated with not knowing more information, as a city leader, of what the public health emergency actually is. How many people are walking around with symptoms? How many people do know somebody that they're caring for who has COVID-19? 

Because right now the tests are reserved for only three classes of people: first responders and health professionals, those who have severe symptoms, and those who have underlying conditions. 

I can understand that's exactly who you want when you have not enough tests getting them. But we need to make sure the general population is being tested enough to give us the information to know the true infection rate. 

Is age a part of “underlying conditions?”

“Absolutely. So that'll be age and/or folks who are immunocompromised or are in treatment for disease right now. Those are the ones where the mortality numbers really go up dramatically. 

… We're all the first responders. And you might feel healthy, you might feel young, you might look at the stats and say it's not me. But we all have a friend who's fighting cancer, or is immunocompromised. We all have parents and grandparents, neighbors who are seniors. Your activities could kill them. … It's about 100% of the time social distancing and making sure that we save lives.”

What are the city's plans for trying to prevent an outbreak in homeless encampments?

“The city and the county … we’re very aggressively taking all of our homeless services workers off the normal work that they do to prepare for this. There's ... by today 310 hand sanitizing stations around our homeless encampments. 

The governor, thankfully, has stepped up and is helping us now try to secure motel and hotel rooms, something that we've done throughout the homeless crisis. But oftentimes, motel or hotel owners didn't want to. Now they need business. So it's a perfect storm to be able to help them out. At the same time, we're helping folks who are unhoused out. And we drew up a plan to look at what it would take to put folks into some of our gymnasiums, potentially our schools.

… It doesn't matter if you're unhoused or not, [it] doesn't matter [what] your immigration status [is]. You get that service and the hospital beds in Los Angeles County if you're in need. This is about your public health, not about your housing status. 

How far are talks about turning public schools into places for the homeless, or for people who need intensive care and there's no room in the hospitals?

“We're looking at all sorts of spaces, including schools. But for instance, the Convention Center, where there [are] not conventions now, most of them have [been] canceled. And I'm sure all of them shortly will be canceled. It's a huge space that we can partition. We can use that as a place for shelter. We can use that as a place to actually assess people if we get enough tests.

And I know the county is working hard, and we’re working with them to get mobile testing soon. That could be a location -- with other places -- where people could go. 

So we're looking not just at schools, but we're looking at Dockweiler Beach. The county has plans and is setting up some places where folks can be isolated and making sure they're not spreading, but also [being] taken care of. So everything is on the table. 

And we are pleased that so many city employees, as well as school district employees and others have stepped up. 

Maybe the library is closed, and the are librarians saying, ‘How can I help?’ … And under the emergency powers I have as mayor, I can reassign city workers. I can actually reassign other non-city workers, just residents in the city, to help out where we're going to need that, should we be overwhelmed in the health care system. 

What does it mean to get non-city workers reassigned? 

Under state of emergency, which we've declared … I want people to be reassured that we can … detail everyday Angelenos to help out with this effort. 

We can tell school workers. For instance, we have a lot of nurses over there. If the schools are closed, and they're not having child care centers, those nurses would be great to help out in the hospitals. And I can make sure that they can … go over there and help us out where the medical professionals are overwhelmed, or some of them themselves are sick. 

We can do that with all citizens that are out there, should we need that. And that should be reassuring to folks that we have plenty of people. We have 4 million people in the city of L.A., 10 million people in this county. 

Are you preparing for widespread looting? 

“No. And I want to reassure people: Crime is down this year. Crime is down even more during this period. Folks are asking, ‘Will we have curfews?’ … We don't anticipate it being a public safety emergency in that way.” 

What about hospital capacity? 

“The simple truth in this country is there's not enough capacity for many of the projections of what could happen with coronavirus. That's not just tough for those folks who are most vulnerable, who would contract COVID-19. But a lot of people need access to our hospitals for other emergency medical procedures, diseases, conditions. And so if everybody's taken up because of this, because that bad curve spikes instead of flattens, that is something that is no different here in L.A. 

… The county public health department … asked us for help. And we've stepped up, looking for those locations where we can triage people, where we can take them in. 

Cedars-Sinai, for instance, put a tent up, which they can do in times of earthquakes and other overwhelming public health moments, where they can take people's temperatures and vet them -- without doing that inside a hospital, where the spaces are going to be quickly overtaken. 

That's why the testing is so absolutely critical. And remembering that most people: Please don't come to a hospital and overwhelm it. If you don't have severe symptoms, do what doctors are saying, which is to stay home, to quarantine yourself, to stay away from everybody that you can, and get through this.

… The tests that were done by the county department of public health, and those are people who are vetted with all the likelihood of having COVID-19, three quarters of them are coming back negative, and one quarter positive. So most people who think they have it don't have it, even at that level. And in the private labs, the first couple of days, it was 94% negative and 6% positive. So there's a lot of worrying well people who are getting those tests coming back negative. And that should reassure people.” 

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin