LOS ANGELES – Los Angeles County public health nurses are closely monitoring all residents who recently traveled to mainland China, regardless of whether they have any symptoms of the coronavirus, the county’s top health official said Tuesday.
More than 1,000 people fall into that category and each has been assigned a public health nurse and asked to self-isolate and not to go to work or school for 14 days, Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the Board of Supervisors.
“This is an aggressive effort to touch all the people who’ve come into L.A. County,” Ferrer said.
DPH is also reaching out to employers and schools and asking them to accommodate the travelers with flexible leave and the ability to manage school or work at home.
“It’s a very small number of people … but nonetheless those people need all of our support,” Ferrer said.
Federal directives affecting travelers went into effect Feb. 2, and notices about symptoms to watch for were posted two and a half weeks ago.
“We’ve had 100% cooperation from travelers,” she said.
Supervisor Janice Hahn said she knew of at least one resident who returned from China and was asked not to come into work. Ferrer said any traveler who has any concerns and was not screened at the airport can reach out via 211 to be assigned a DPH contact.
Supervisor Hilda Solis said she was worried about discrimination, as well as anxiety caused by the pandemic, especially for residents with family in China.
“So many fears have been cultivated based on racial profiling,” Solis said, citing the case of a young boy who was beaten up or bullied because of a perceived connection to the virus.
The coronavirus — now dubbed COVID-19 by the World Health Organization — was first identified by the Chinese government on Dec. 31, when authorities indicated an unknown pneumonia variant was impacting residents of Hubei province.
Globally, more than 43,000 people have contracted the coronavirus and 1,018 people — two of them outside of mainland China — have died as a result.
“The numbers are staggering,” Ferrer said, but she stressed that the number of patients remains low in the United States, with 13 confirmed cases nationwide. Of those, seven are in California, including one each in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties.
“It’s safe to keep patronizing our Chinese vendors,” Ferrer said. “There is no reason for us to take the fear to a level that is not supported by any science.”
All but two of the 13 U.S. cases are people who traveled to China. The remaining two are spouses of those travelers. Less than 1% of confirmed cases worldwide are outside of China.
Ferrer said DPH workers are coordinating on “multiple calls every day with our federal and state partners,” including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Defense.
She acknowledged that additional cases are likely, given continuing travel from China. Ferrer also noted that the majority of deaths from COVID-19, as with the flu, are related to an underlying health condition. In China, an additional issue seems to be that people are having trouble accessing care, she said, though information from China is limited and the government there has refused help from the CDC.
“In the Hubei province, they are overwhelmed with people who are sick,” Ferrer said.
No foreign nationals from any country who have recently traveled to China are now allowed entry to the United States.
U.S. citizens and their close family members who travel from China are only allowed to pass through one of 11 airports nationwide, including LAX, where they are screened into one of three groups.
Those with symptoms of respiratory illness or fever — a very small number, according to Ferrer — are transported to a medical facility for further screening and testing.
Those who have been in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, or who have had close contact with someone else with the virus are subject to mandatory quarantine at one of four American military bases, including March Air Reserve Base in Riverside. A group of 195 people held at March were released from a 14-day quarantine Tuesday morning. None had tested positive for the virus.
Officials at the base said two other travelers who passed through LAX and who were brought to the base separately from the original group of 195 remain under quarantine.
U.S. citizens traveling from anywhere else in China who have not had close contact with the virus and show no symptoms are allowed to proceed to their final destination, where they are actively monitored by the local health department and told to stay away from the general public.
Airlines around the world continue to limit flights to China. American Airlines has extended cancellations to mainland China and Hong Kong through at least April 23. Two cruise ships in Asia with more than 5,000 people onboard are stuck at sea. On one, 135 passengers have tested positive for COVID-19 and are being quarantined on board. On the other vessel, no cases of the virus have been confirmed, but the ship has been refused entry to ports in Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines.
The Board of Supervisors has requested a weekly update on the virus.