Stressing that they were acting out of “an abundance of caution” and not panic, Los Angeles city and county officials Wednesday declared a state of emergency for the novel coronavirus, as six new cases of the disease were revealed in the county in the last 48 hours.
Appearing at a morning news conference attended by L.A. Department of Public Health officials, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and L.A. County Supervisors Hilda Solis, Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn, the officials said the declarations would allow greater coordination among various levels of government, with more local cases expected to be discovered in the near future.
The six new cases were confirmed Tuesday night with positive lab results and were linked to an “assumed known exposure,” according to Dr. Barbara Ferrer, head of the county health department.
“There’s either a travel history to an area with an outbreak, there’s exposure to known travelers coming from areas where there’s an outbreak, or the person is in close contact with a confirmed case,” she said.
“This means as of today, we still don’t have known cases of community transmission.”
One of the six new victims is in the hospital, while the others are being treated in isolation at home and monitored by the health department, according to Ferrer.
“Three of the new cases were travelers who were traveling together in Italy, two of the new cases are family members who are in close contact with another family member who does not live in L.A. County but (has the virus) and the last new case is a person whose job at the time exposed them to travelers from other countries who may have been infectious.”
County health officials later confirmed that the job-related patient was a contract worker who was conducting medical screenings of passengers at Los Angeles International Airport. The Department of Homeland Security issued a statement Wednesday saying a “medical professional” who was screening passengers for coronavirus at LAX had tested positive for the illness.
“This individual is currently under self-quarantine at home with mild symptoms and under medical supervision,” according to a DHS statement to NBC News, which first reported the case. “Their immediate family is also under home quarantine.”
DHS officials said the person last performed screenings at the airport on Feb. 21. County sources said that was seven days before the worker showed any symptoms of the virus, and there is no concern the person may have transmitted the disease to any airport passengers.
Ferrer laid out a series of steps the department will be taking in the days and weeks ahead.
“We are increasing our capacity for testing at our local public health lab. (It is) among 10 California health labs that have received CDC test kits and we have additional kits on the way. We are currently testing and have been since last Wednesday,” Ferrer said.
“We will ensure that people who test positive for the novel coronavirus and their close contacts are quickly identified and closely monitored and supported while they are in isolation and/or quarantine.”
County residents can expect more confirmed cases in the near future, according to Ferrer. She urged people to follow basic sanitary practices such as frequent and thorough hand washing, covering their mouths and noses when coughing or sneezing, and avoiding other people if they are sick, but also plan for the possibility of “more extensive social distancing requirements,” including verbal salutations instead of handshakes, and whenever possible, trying to stay at least six feet away from strangers at public events.
“We do need folks to plan for the possibility of business disruptions, school closures, and modifications or cancellations of select public events. We will be working closely with schools and public event venues and businesses before decisions are made to close.
“If at any point we think that there’s good reason for us to be worried about extensive, extensive community transmission … we may ask for modifications at large public events,” she added. “This could be that games are played but there are no spectators. This could be that there are limits to how people are going to gather at public events. But I want to reassure everyone we are not there today.”
Italy’s government took the extreme step Wednesday of banning the public from attending sporting events, and temporarily closed that nation’s schools and universities. Italy has seen at least 79 deaths from COVID-19, the worst outbreak anywhere outside Asia.
Ferrer also said the department will begin daily radio briefings Thursday on three different stations, and is posting new guidelines for “childcare facilities, schools, colleges and universities, employers, hotels, public safety responders, shelters, and parents on how they can prepare for and slow the spread of the virus, officially known as COVID-19.
Additionally, the department is sending out technical assistance teams on site visits to interim housing facilities to make sure all necessary precautions are taken.
The county’s pandemic response plan for COVID-19 in accordance with guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Garcetti said the city has activated its emergency management department at level 3 for the past week, which is the lowest level, to coordinate the city’s efforts with the county’s, and to direct each city department to examine their plans “should things get worse.”
The health directors of Long Beach and Pasadena, which have their own health departments, said they both planned to declare public health emergencies later Wednesday, even though neither city currently has any known cases of the virus.
A few hours after Wednesday’s news conference in Los Angeles, officials in Placer County announced the first California death from COVID-19, an elderly adult with underlying health conditions.
The patient tested presumptively positive on Tuesday at a California lab and was likely exposed during international travel from Feb. 11-21 on a Princess cruise ship that departed from San Francisco to Mexico. The patient was in isolation at Kaiser Permanente Roseville.
On Tuesday night, officials with Kaiser Permanente confirmed to various media outlets that it was treating a newly diagnosed coronavirus patient in Los Angeles.
“Kaiser Permanente is overseeing the care of a coronavirus patient who is home in self-isolation and being treated on an outpatient basis,” according to a Kaiser statement. “We are in touch with and monitoring the patient.”
No other details were released about the patient or how the person may have been exposed to the illness that has killed more than 3,100 people worldwide, mostly in China. Eleven deaths have been reported in the United States, 10 in Washington state and the one in Placer County. More than 93,000 cases of the illness have been confirmed around the globe.
A previous confirmed coronavirus patient in Los Angeles County has since recovered and been released from treatment.
News of the new Los Angeles cases came on the heels of Orange County health officials announcing Tuesday that two more residents there had tested positive locally for the virus. Those diagnoses were still awaiting confirmation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.
Orange County also had a previous coronavirus patient who has also recovered.
The newest Orange County patients are a man in his 60s and a woman in her 30s who had recently traveled to countries with widespread outbreaks of COVID-19. One media report indicated that the pair had both traveled — separately — to Italy.
Dr. Nichole Quick, Orange County’s health officer, credited the discovery of the new patients to increased local testing ability.
“The more you look for something, the more likely you are to find it,” she said. “… Now that our Public Health Laboratory is able to perform COVID-19 testing, we expect to see more cases here in Orange County. Our residents should take everyday precautions to prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses like covering your coughs and sneezes, avoiding touching your face, and washing your hands frequently.”
More information about the county’s efforts can be found at http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/.