L.A. County Department of Public Health Reports 8 New Coronavirus Cases

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Barbara Ferrer said the county now has 40 total cases as she fielded questions about testing, quarantine facilities and what's next for the pandemic in Southern California.

At the same time President Donald Trump declared a national emergency over the coronavirus pandemic during a press conference on the White House lawn, L.A. County Department of Public Health director Barbara Ferrer was holding her own media gathering downtown, where she announced the latest cases locally. 

Ferrer reported eight new cases, bringing the total number in L.A. County to 40. Of the new cases, three have an unidentified source of transmission — Ferrer assumes individuals contracted it through community transmission — while four others are still being investigated. The other case involved travel to South Korea. 

"As with all of our cases, those folks are isolated and their close contacts are quarantined," Ferrer explained of measures to help isolate the spread. She would not comment on hospital locations or reveal any additional information about areas affected; she did, however, predict that officials would issue additional information Monday pertaining to the known cases, revealing both age groups and geographic locations in the county, specifically those areas with populations in excess of 30,000. 

She also noted that California as a whole has a total of 247 cases. The United States, per the Centers for Disease Control, currently has 1,629 known cases and 41 deaths. Just days ago, Ferrer announced that L.A. County had reported its first death from COVID-19, a woman in her 60s who was visiting friends in the area. She had underlying health issues and had been traveling extensively, including a long layover in South Korea.

Ferrer's Friday press conference closed out a week during which she has been providing daily briefings, typically held at noon or shortly thereafter, to disseminate the latest numbers for L.A. County. Though the numbers remain low compared with countries like Italy, Iran and states like New York, which counts 400 cases, Ferrer's briefings have been an important tool to help shed light amid the panic of empty shelves in supermarkets, shuttered venues and postponed events like the NBA and NHL seasons and the upcoming NCAA March Madness basketball tournament. California Governor Gavin Newsom this week announced a limit of public gatherings to 250, while Mayor Eric Garcetti went a step further yesterday to limit it to 50 and encourage residents to practice social distancing as a way to curb the spread of the virus. 

"Social distancing is the tool we're using now to help us in our strategies for trying to slow the spread for novel coronavirus," Ferrer continued, calling it a particularly important tool that calls for individuals to maintain a healthy distance of six feet from one another at events, venues or in public.

Ferrer also fielded questions on testing, a subject that has become the hot-button issue in the U.S. after Anthony Fauci, M.D., from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said the system is failing. "The system is not really geared to what we need right now...let's admit it," he said. 

Ferrer first said that of all the tests done by L.A. County, only 25 percent have been positive, leaving 75 percent negative. Meanwhile, commercial labs are reporting a 4 percent overall positivity rate. "There are a lot of people being tested but tests are negative and they have another illness that is not COVID-19," she said. 

She then said that "we have enough tests right now for [whenever] is a clinical imperative that [individuals] be tested," meaning those who are exhibiting symptoms of the virus, such as fever, coughing and flu-like symptoms. "People need to understand that the system works for people who need to be tested."

Ferrer's press conference followed an earlier one held by Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner, who announced the closure of the district Monday for the foreseeable future, a move that affects more than 700,000 children in Los Angeles. Ferrer applauded Beutner and his staff for "thinking through the plan." 

The county has also identified locations that could potentially house individuals or groups that need to be isolated in case the virus spreads further in Los Angeles. These locations may house the many people experiencing homelessness or in shelters as well as people who are unable to be isolated in the homes where they currently live. Thus, officials have identified places — she hesitated on calling them quarantine centers — where they can provide shelter, individual rooms and private bathrooms for those who need it. "I just know that we should be prepared for a significant number and that’s what everyone is working on."

She stopped short of offering a prediction of how the virus could spread in L.A. County, explaining that there are still too many unknowns about coronavirus. "One of reasons it's potentially more dangerous is that we don’t know everything we need to know. It's a new virus and there's no immunity to it," she said, adding that it doesn't always cause severe illnesses in some who contract it but it does have a high transmission rate. "Deaths from any new virus is always going to be concerning, and [coronavirus] seems to be transmitted fairly easily among people who have close contact. That's why we're being very careful to implement all the strategies that we have."