UPDATE: The story has been updated to note the first case of community spread and a new total.
After six new cases of infection were confirmed this week in Los Angeles County, Los Angeles city and county leaders declared a public health emergency over COVID-19, the strain of coronavirus that has spread across the globe over the past two months.
The Wednesday, March 4 declaration was followed by a state public health emergency declaration on Thursday, March 5. Gov. Gavin Newsom has ordered insurance providers to waive out-of-pocket costs on tests for the virus. Locally, the city and county's declaration makes it easier for officials to apply for state and federal funds for tests and other responses.
“The step we’re taking today is about preparation, not panic,” said Mayor Eric Garcetti in a statement on Wednesday. “There is extraordinary work being done alongside our partners in county and federal government to keep Angelenos safe, aware, and informed. This declaration is about making sure we are positioned to respond to any changes in the situation, and are doing everything we can to protect our communities.”
The disease originated in Wuhan, China and causes symptoms similar to the flu including respiratory complications, fatigue and dizziness. In extreme cases, COVID-19 can be fatal. As of press time, there are seven cases in the county and at least 60 across California. The first case in the state was identified on Jan. 26. At 3 p.m. on Friday, March 6, 15 people had died nationwide. Approximately 3,300 people have died worldwide from the disease with over 100,000 cases reported.
The Los Angeles Department of Public Health said in a press release last week that none of the new cases as of then were from community spread and all of the new cases were exposed through close, bodily contact. On Monday, the County Public Health Department confirmed one case was from community spread, and that there were now 16 total cases.
Currently, although the disease is far from fatal to everyone who contracts it, there is no specific cure or vaccine for COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing hands with soap for at least 20 seconds as the best prevention method, and urges people not to touch their faces.
Given Downtown’s nature as a transit, business and tourism hub, there is concern over major gatherings. Across the country, several major conventions have been postponed, such as the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. On Friday, March 6, organizers of the SXSW music, technology and film festival in Austin announced that the annual event was canceled. The Los Angeles Convention Center has not canceled any events, but did say that it has doubled its hand sanitizer stations in the facilities and is doing daily cleanings.
As the coronavirus continues to spread, a number of local gatherings have felt the impact, but have yet to go as far as to cancel games or reschedule. The Los Angeles Marathon, set for Sunday, March 8, is still scheduled to occur, however event organizers have urged anyone who feels sick to stay home. With the 2020 Major League Baseball season set to begin on March 26, the Dodgers have also not announced plans to postpone or cancel games, but are currently finalizing a plan according to Dodgers President and CEO Stan Kasten. At Staples Center, home to the Los Angeles Clippers, Lakers, Kings and Sparks, and a number of large scale events, health advisories have been posted around the venue, although no events have been canceled. The NBA has requested that players “fist bump” one another instead of shaking hands.
That’s a far cry from what has occurred in more impacted areas across the globe. In Japan, the Nippon Baseball League has resulted in playing games without an audience and Japanese Olympic Officials have floated the idea of postponing the 2020 Olympic Games until the rate of contamination slows down. A torch-lighting ceremony, which was originally scheduled for March 12 in Greece has been pushed back. In Italy, all sporting events will be held without audiences until at least April 3, and in Switzerland, Iran and China and South Korea games have been suspended until various dates.
Attention to Hygiene
A major local concern is providing enough adequate treatment and hygiene services to the roughly 60,000 homeless individuals inside Los Angeles County, who are at risk for infectious diseases due to limited sanitation options.
Los Angeles City Councilmembers Mitch O'Farrell and Monica Rodriguez presented a motion on Wednesday calling for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and the Bureau of Sanitation to set up sanitation stations at known encampments to help unhoused individuals.
A lack of sanitation services amongst homeless encampments has been noted in the past. A 2017 audit report found that Downtown's 50-block Skid Row neighborhood had only nine public toilets available for use overnight, far short of the United Nations' minimum for long-term refugee camps. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s 2019 homeless count found 4,757 individuals without permanent housing living in Skid Row. In fall 2018, Downtown was hit by an outbreak of typhus, with experts pointing to the conditions in Skid Row as a key cause.
“I want to ensure we have the necessary hygiene stations and resources available from our local and federal partners to address this rapidly moving urgent public health crisis,” O'Farrell said in a prepared statement. “We must take precautions — and secure the necessary resources — for our most vulnerable population as well as for those who are working with them.”
Specific implementation would be decided by each council office.
To protect staff, the Bureau of Sanitation staff operating in Skid Row and other parts of the city are provided protective equipment to prevent infection, per the office of 14th District City Councilman Jose Huizar. Huizar also introduced a motion this week directing Bureau of Sanitation staff to coordinate with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority for recommendations on adding more hygiene options to Skid Row. In a statement, Huizar said that “additional steps” must be taken to help “a much more vulnerable population.”
“It’s essential for the city to collaborate with our partner organizations to provide additional hygiene stations, hygiene kits and education for the unhoused population -- not only on Skid Row, but throughout the city,” Huizar’s statement continued.
Aside from being a nexus for three freeways, Downtown also is the central terminus for regional and Metropolitan Transportation Authority rail lines and bus routes.
A spokesman for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation said that LADOT has upped its cleaning schedule for DASH and Commuter Express buses to daily. Previously, buses were cleaned every other day.
Metro formed an internal task force to plan the agency's response if the virus appears on the Metro rail and bus system, according to Dave Sotero, a spokesperson for Metro. He stressed that there is no increased risk for passengers.
“We clean our buses and trains on a daily basis,” Sotero told Los Angeles Downtown News. “We will be reviewing our cleaning protocols to ensure they’re adequate. We will continue to work to ensure that our system remains as safe and clean as possible.”
Information on the virus and prevention are at http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/media/Coronavirus.
Sean P. Thomas contributed to this report.