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LA Health Official: 'Every Single' Person And Business Needs To Help Curb Virus Surge

Jul 28, 2020
Originally published on July 29, 2020 12:48 am

Back in March, California was among the first round of states to issue a stay-at-home order. It was held up as an example of the power of early action.

The state began easing restrictions at the end of May, but then, county-by-county, Gov. Gavin Newsom and local officials reversed course, shutting back down earlier this month.

Now, as July comes to a close, California has the most coronavirus cases of any state: 458,121.

That works out to be 1,159 infections per 100,000 people. Over 8,500 people in California have died.

Populous Los Angeles County has become a state and national hotspot.

So, what happened?

Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that while you can never be sure with COVID-19. She says the agency employed "a variety of strategies to mitigate the greatest risk for transmission," but the community's ability to adhere to those strategies is a key. In the case of Los Angeles' manufacturing district, Ferrer says, there's work to be done. At one garment factory alone, she says, 300 people tested positive. Four people died.

"I think the garment factory was a really good example of people not following our directives: ... We found cardboard partitions with holes in them so that the piecework could get passed easily from one station to the other," Ferrer says. "That's not the intent of having a physical barrier. And cardboard does not work as effectively as 'impermeable' heavy plastic barriers."

She says the agency is clear in the directives, "but manufacturers have to protect their workers. It's unconscionable, it's not moral, to have workers exposed because they're doing essential work."

Here are excerpts of the Morning Edition conversation.

When you think about garment jobs, or meatpacking jobs, these are tough jobs. They're often done by immigrants. We've reported Black and Latinx communities have been especially hard hit by the pandemic. What are you seeing in LA?

If you look at who's hardest hit in LA County, and I don't think we're unique, you're gonna find our Latinx population is the hardest hit, followed closely by ... African Americans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders. I think it is driven by workplace exposures. And then people go back to their homes, with multi-generational family members living together. It's the perfect storm for a lot of spread. If we ask people to isolate and quarantine, they need support. We need a social safety net. You can't really be choosing between, 'Am I going to be able to feed my family and pay my rent?' Or, 'Am I going to be able to quarantine when I'm told I am a close contact?'

What impact will schools not opening fully have on working people?

It's mixed. ... I think some working people really are worried about their children going back to school. Here in LA County, we obviously are seeing our highest numbers of cases over the last few weeks than we've ever seen. And I think there's legitimate worry amongst the staff and the teachers that would need to go back. But we do have to have solutions for child care. And we need to make sure that those child care or extended-day programs for school-aged children are run effectively and provide all of the safety precautions.

Do you assume that there will be remote learning for the fall semester?

I think it's up to all of us. Our state has set a threshold that you have to meet in order to be able to open your schools for in-classroom learning. We haven't met it yet in LA County. We're in good company — I think 34 other counties here also haven't met that threshold. So we know what we need to do if we want to open up our schools again.

It's going to require every single person and every single business to get back into the game, to feel comfortable that they know what they need to do to slow the spread.

Listen to the full interview at the audio link above.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's get some lessons from a coronavirus hot spot. California was considered an example of early action with the country's first statewide lockdown, but after easing restrictions, California leads the country with the most coronavirus cases - nearly half a million. So let's zero in on Los Angeles County. Barbara Ferrer is director of the LA County Department of Public Health, and we asked if she understood what's driving the latest increase.

BARBARA FERRER: You know, we're never sure with this virus. I feel pretty confident saying that, here in LA County, there's a variety of strategies to sort of mitigate the greatest risks for transmission - you know, having people inside who aren't wearing face coverings who are with people who aren't in their household. We know that's a risky setting. Having people who are, in fact, gathering for the birthday parties that they put off, eating and drinking together - high risk for transmission, even if some of those activities are happening outdoors.

I feel pretty confident that we understand, also, what's going on in workplaces - you know, can't have people crammed into workplaces with no physical barriers between them, not able to wear face coverings and not expect that we're going to end up where we have here in our county, which is large outbreaks in the manufacturing industry. Those are things we can fix.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that. Some people may not know that LA employs about as many manufacturing employees as any place in the country. And you've had these major outbreaks at a garment-maker...

FERRER: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...At a meatpacking plant.

FERRER: Yes.

INSKEEP: Were the conditions there what you just described - basically, no protective measures being taken?

FERRER: Yeah, I think the garment factory was a really good example of people not following our directives. When we walked into the garment factory where we had over 300 cases - and, unfortunately, four people died - we found cardboard partitions with holes in them so that the piecework could get passed easily from one station to the other. That's not the intent of having a physical barrier. And cardboard does not work as effectively as what we call, you know, these impermeable, often heavy plastic barriers. So, you know, we're clear in our directives. But manufacturers have to protect their workers. It's unconscionable. It's not moral to have workers exposed because they're there doing essential work.

INSKEEP: You know, when you think about garment jobs or meatpacking jobs, these are tough jobs. They're often done by immigrants. And, of course, we have heard all about the different disparities in different races, different groups of people. Is that being driven by the kind of work that some people end up doing in LA?

FERRER: Yeah, I think it is being driven in part by that. You know, I would say if you look at who's hardest hit in LA County - and I don't think we're unique - you're going to find our Latinx, Latino population is the hardest hit, followed closely by Blacks and African Americans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders. I think it is driven by workplace exposures, and then people go back to their homes, with multigenerational family members living together. It's the perfect storm for a lot of spread.

And I also think if we ask people to isolate and quarantine, they need support. We need a safety net. You can't really be choosing between, am I going to be able to feed my family and pay my rent or am I going to be able to quarantine when I'm told I'm a close contact?

INSKEEP: How devastating is it for working people that the schools are not going to open as normal?

FERRER: It's mixed, I think, for working people. I think some working people really are worried about their children going back to school. You know, here in LA County, we obviously are seeing our highest numbers of cases over the last few weeks than we've ever seen, and I think there's legitimate worry amongst the staff and the teachers that would need to go back. But we do have to have solutions for child care, and we need to make sure that those child care or extended day programs for school-aged children are run effectively and provide all of the safety precautions.

INSKEEP: Do you assume that the semester is gone, that there will be remote learning for this semester?

FERRER: You know, I think it's up to all of us. Our state has set a threshold that you have to meet in order to be able to open your schools for in-classroom learning. We haven't met it yet in LA County. We're in good company. I think 34 other counties here also haven't met that threshold. So we know what we need to do if we want to open up our schools again, and it's going to require every single person and every single business to get back into the game, to feel comfortable that they know what they need to do to slow the spread.

INSKEEP: Barbara Ferrer is the director of Los Angeles County's Department of Public Health. Thank you so much.

FERRER: Thanks a lot for calling us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.