LOS ANGELES – Los Angeles County’s top public health official stressed Tuesday that there remains only one case of coronavirus in Los Angeles County, hoping to counter misleading information stoking fear in some communities.
“There is a lot of fear and misinformation,” Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the Board of Supervisors, adding that her department is putting a system in place that “protects everyone without stigmatizing anyone.”
Supervisor Hilda Solis said some people were circulating petitions to close schools and misinformation about the virus, using the county logo and other official insignia.
“It is clearly stirring up fear, racial bias,” Solis said of the concern about the virus that was first identified by the Chinese government on Dec. 31, when authorities indicated an unknown pneumonia variant was impacting residents of Hubei province.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger — who joined Solis in attending a parade in Chinatown Saturday to celebrate the Lunar New Year — said she worried about Chinese residents being targeted in dangerous ways.
“I would ask the public to act responsibly. Do not profile,” Barger said.
Ferrer stressed that the number of patients remains low in the U.S., with 11 confirmed cases nationwide. Of those, six are in California, including one each in Los Angeles County and Orange County.
“We still only have one case and that one case is a traveler who lives in Wuhan city,” Ferrer said. “There’s no reason for schools to close. There’s no reason for that level of panic.”
Nine of the U.S. patients were exposed in Wuhan and two had “very intimate contact” with other patients, according to Ferrer.
Globally, more than 20,000 people have contracted the coronavirus and 427 people — two of them outside of mainland China — have died as a result.
“It’s scary what’s happening in China, but that’s not what’s happening in L.A. County,” Ferrer said.
She walked the board through the federal directives issued by the White House on Friday night, which Ferrer said she believed were appropriate steps to contain the virus.
No foreign nationals from any country who have recently traveled to China are now allowed entry to the U.S.
U.S. citizens and their close family members who travel here from China are only allowed to travel 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.
Riverside County health officials said a passenger traveling through Los Angeles International Airport on Monday has been quarantined at March — which is separately housing 195 Americans who returned last week on a flight from Wuhan — and will remain there until Feb. 6.
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.
Ferrer said her department was advising schools and employers to accommodate those people, allowing them to work and study at home during what amounts to a self-quarantine for 14 days. County workers are helping to arrange for food and other necessities.
“We are trying to minimize economic hardship,” Ferrer said. “They are not quarantined, however. They are just asked to exclude themselves from public activities.”
In response to questions from the board, Ferrer said testing for the virus can only be done in Atlanta at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, creating long lead times, but testing protocols will be rolled out to L.A. County and other public health labs across the country. She expected local testing to be available in roughly two weeks, but only at such labs, not at a doctor’s office.
DPH is also working to inform city officials, universities, school districts and other groups seeking guidance on how to respond.
Ferrer said a hotline would soon be established for city officials and universities to get answers in real-time. Calls from healthcare providers, which have ramped up dramatically, are being handled by 211 operators, and DPH is monitoring those efforts.
Barger said it was important to be vigilant, but asked residents to strike a balance.
“We need to make sure that this does not create a situation where we’re putting people’s lives in jeopardy … in terms of profiling and assuming that because you are from maybe China, maybe the Philippines, that you are infected with the coronavirus,” she said.