Coronavirus trends falling in LA County; health officer says he knows why

Coronavirus deaths in Los Angeles County continued to fall on Monday, Aug. 24, a sign that stringent efforts to control the virus are trending toward a point where businesses could again begin to offer dining indoors and residents could once again hold gatherings at their homes, officials said.

But we’re not there yet, warned L.A. County Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis, who said that even when we are, masks and social distancing will be part of the equation.

Davis reported 13 new deaths related to the virus, bringing the county’s total to 5,558 deaths. New cases stood at 1,198, bringing the county’s total to 232,893. The number of hospitalized was 1,219 — much lower than the averages seen in mid-July that consistently topped 2,000.

Of the most recent deaths, most had underlying conditions. And while most — nine — were older than 80, one of the dead was between 30 and 49, and another between 50 and 64.

The report did not include updated numbers for Long Beach and Pasadena, which operate their own health departments.

Another two Long Beach residents died from coronavirus-related causes, officials announced, bringing the city’s death toll to 203. The city also reported 131 new cases, bringing the city’s total to 10,147.

As of Monday, Pasadena reported no additional deaths for a total of 111 — the city’s 19th straight fatality-free day — and eight new cases for a total of 2,299.

Even with deaths still climbing overall in L.A. County, Davis echoed a recent refrain from other local and state public health officials: Stringent efforts to physical distance and tougher enforcement in recent weeks are showing success in pushing back a surge of cases, hospitalizations and deaths that emerged in late June and in July.

At the beginning of June, he noted, there were around 1,300 cases per day in L.A. County, a leveling off after weeks of stay-home orders in March and April. But then, as more businesses reopened in late May and June and people “were not careful about wearing maks,” the numbers went up to 3,200 average cases per day by mid to late July.

Correspondingly, what had been average numbers of 5% to 6% positive tests back in June had by July increased to between 8% and 9% positive cases — ultimately sealing L.A. County’s spot on the state’s monitoring list. That list requires that per capita, the rate comes down to fewer than 100 positive cases per 100,000 people before a county can clear the list.

As of Monday, L.A. County was at 204 cases for every 100,000 people. It was still still high but was moving in the right direction to meet the state’s threshold — a trend Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday was being seen across the state.

“As we go through this, it’s been lessons learned. I think more people are getting it. That’s been helpful,” Davis said Monday, as he walked through charts showing declining trends of hospitalizations, cases and deaths.

“The work we have all done as a community and the sacrifices we are making are working,”  Davis said. “We’re preventing COVID-19 infections, including serious illness and deaths.

L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer has noted that the county now meets five of the state’s six criteria for controlling infections, falling short only in the per-capita rate of people testing positive for the virus.

But that rate is pivotal to getting off the state’s monitoring list, which would allow more businesses to reopen for schools to welcome students back to campus.

Orange County has crossed that threshold Sunday, and Riverside and San Bernardino were getting close on Monday — at 158 per 100,000 and 191 per 100,000 respectively.

L.A. County is one of 35 counties in the state still on the list.

Davis said getting there is going to take more sacrifice and a healthy dose of caution.

For businesses, Davis said that means continuing to adhere to strict physical distancing protocol and heeding the county’s order to report when three employees test positive over a 14-day period. For residents, it means wearing masks, physical distancing and not holding gatherings at home with people form outside the household.

“We must own our role in this recovery,” he said.

On the same day he and the governor were touting positive trends, USC health officials were reporting an “alarming” spike of 43 coronavirus cases confirmed in off-campus housing facilities, along with 100 students in quarantine due to possible exposure to COVID-19.

According to Dr. Sarah Van Orman, head of USC Student Health, 14 cases were identified through general population testing among students not showing any symptoms, while 29 more were confirmed through contact tracing and testing of people showing symptoms or who were exposed to the illness.

With Labor coming fast, Davis said health officials were talking with city officials, particularly in beach communities where crowds are an annual Labor Day happening.

The question is, will health authorities ease up or tighten restrictions as the holiday approaches?

“It’s an active discussion, but we’ll make that call as we finish those discussions,” he said.

Ferrer noted recently, too that “we’re looking to what we can do differently around Labor Day,” though she didn’t offer specifics in terms of what steps might be taken to prevent a repeat of the post-July 4 and Memorial Day spikes, but Ferrer said she hopes people take heed of the public-gathering restrictions during the upcoming Labor Day weekend.

“Cautious reopening means we take to heart the lessons we learned from July and move forward in a new normal of making the infection-control practices part of our day-to-day lives for the foreseeable future,” Davis said.

City News Service contributed to this story.