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First coronavirus death reported in L.A. County

LOS ANGELES — On the day the World Health Organization officially classified the novel coronavirus as a global pandemic, Los Angeles County reported its first confirmed death from the virus March 11.

Dr. Barbara Ferrer, head of the county Department of Public Health, said a woman in her 60s who lives elsewhere but was visiting friends in the area had died.

The woman had underlying health issues and had traveled extensively over the past month, including a “long layover in South Korea,” Ferrer said.

No other specifics about the woman were released, including the name of the hospital where she died.

Ferrer also reported another six coronavirus cases in Los Angeles County, bringing the total to 27.

Novel coronavirus, also referred to as COVID-19 has been declared an emergency in the county and is being responded to and treated like a natural disaster, Ferrer said.

At this time, there is no vaccine for the coronavirus, which experts said originated in the Wuhan province of China.

Officials across the region are focused on slowing transmission of the virus. On March 10, promoters of the Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals next month in Palm Springs announced they were being postponed until October.

Many universities, including USC, UCLA, Pepperdine and Cal State Long Beach, began the process of moving to online classes. Officials of sports leagues were debating whether to hold sporting events in empty stadiums or just postpone the games to prevent the spread of the disease.

The NCAA March 11 announced that the men’s and women’s college basketball tournaments would be played with only essential personnel in the buildings.

“How much [has] spread, I have no idea, but I want to be prepared,” Ferrer said. “My advice to everyone is to do everything you can to take public precaution.

“We continue to urge everyone to do their part: stay home if you are sick and keep your children home if they are sick; plan for the possibility of school and business closures, and be sure to follow any additional directives issued by [the county] and/or local officials. By working together, we can slow the transmission of novel coronavirus,” Ferrer added.

Public health officials said symptoms of the flu and coronavirus are similar. However, at this time, the coronavirus is more deadly. Symptoms include a fever, coughing and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea. 

Officials are using social media to spread the message that hand washing with soap and water for 20 seconds at a time really does help.

Ferrer urged the public to be aware of people around them and move away from people who are coughing and sneezing. 

The Los Angeles Unified School District has declared a state of emergency related to the COVID-19 virus, giving Superintendent Austin Beutner the authority to close schools if necessary. 

District leaders said the emergency declaration will free up resources, making it easier to coordinate with other agencies, providing greater flexibility in responding to any potential occurrence of the illness.

Coronavirus is also a major concern at Los Angeles International Airport. A union representing some airport employees is passing out protective equipment to employees and holding contagious disease training.

Public education is also paramount to curbing the coronavirus. 

The city of Inglewood Office of Emergency Services hosted an emergency preparedness panel March 7.

“With more cases (being reported), we are urging people with underlying health conditions, pregnant women and the elderly to practice social distancing by avoiding non-essential travel, public events, community gatherings and indoor venues,” Ferrer said.

Other recommendations the public can do to protect themselves and others from respiratory illnesses include:

• Staying home when you are sick.

• Washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unclean hands.

• Limiting close contact, like kissing and sharing cups or utensils with people who are sick.

• Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.

• Covering your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throwing the tissue in the trash. If you do not have a tissue, use your sleeve (not your hands).

• Facemasks are most effective when used appropriately by health care workers and those directly caring for people who are sick and by people who are sick (source control).

• Get a flu immunization to prevent influenza if you have not done so this season.

Los Angeles County public health teams began visiting nursing home and long-term care facilities March 11 to ensure all steps are being taken to protect against the virus.

Ferrer said the teams over the past week had been visiting interim housing facilities, including homeless shelters, to check their ability to respond to a possible case of the illness.

Those teams will now focus on the nursing and long-term care facilities, an effort she said is “really both making sure that they’re able to adequately enforce all of their infectious disease control protocols, but just as importantly, we’d like to help them move to changing some common practices that may happen at their residences.”

Those practices include large community events that may occur at nursing homes, “activities that involve large [groups of] people getting together,” and allowing visitors to enter facilities without first being checked to see if they are free of illness.

City News Service contributed to this story.