LOS ANGELES — Rising coronavirus cases and fatalities remain concerning — with four dozen more deaths confirmed July 23 — but there are signs Los Angeles County is beginning to turn the corner in efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, according to one of the county’s top health officer.
“At least this week, we’re still seeing concerning data,” county health officer Dr. Muntu Davis told reporters in an online briefing July 23. “There are still high case counts, hospitalizations have exceeded 2,200 people for at least the last four days in a row and tragically people are still dying from COVID-19. But I hope this week marks a turning point, and that we’ll start to see the results of our collective actions to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“We’re already seeing more positive data,” he said. “Our daily positivity rate remains flat at or just below 8.5% — again, that’s a seven-day average. And while this rate is still higher than what we’d like it to be, it offers some evidence we may be returning to slowing the spread and that our efforts and sacrifices are making a difference.”
The seven-day positivity rate in the county reached as high as 11% earlier this month.
Davis warned, however, that recent numbers have been daunting, noting that the county reported about 9,000 new cases of the virus in the first three days of this week alone, with a majority of those infections occurring among younger residents.
On July 23, the county confirmed another 2,014 cases, pushing the overall total to 167,030 since the start of the pandemic.
The county also announced another 49 deaths, moving the virus’ death count to 4,263, according to the county.
The county also reported that 2,210 people were hospitalized with the virus, the fifth day in a row the number has exceeded 2,200. But while that number remains just shy of the record set days ago, health officials noted that the steady rise in hospitalizations seen earlier this month appears to have flattened out and may actually be starting to decrease.
Davis urged residents to continue adhering to public health orders such as practicing physical distancing and wearing face coverings in public, and he said business owners must continue to meet all health protocols in their operations.
On that front, Davis reported vastly improved compliance by various business sectors, most notably restaurants, which are currently limited to outdoor-only operations. He said that one month ago, roughly 33% of restaurants that underwent inspections were failing to adhere to physical distancing requirements, and 40% were in violation of employee face-covering mandates. But last weekend, inspectors visited 507 eateries and found 93% compliance with physical distancing rules, 96% compliance for employee face coverings and 98% compliance with customer face-covering rules.
Davis said L.A. Apparel’s South Los Angeles manufacturing facility — which was shut down this month after 375 workers tested positive for the virus and four died — has been allowed to reopen. The site remains the largest single outbreak identified by the county during the pandemic.
“They’re ensuring their employees are trained, physically distanced, wearing face coverings and that the facility is following enhanced cleaning regimens,” he said. “They’re also now screening employees for COVID-19 symptoms, something they hadn’t done before.”
According to Davis, since health orders took effect, the county has shut down 26 restaurants, one grocery store, one pool and 67 “unregulated businesses,” including three gyms, for failing to comply.
He said that since March, health inspectors have responded to 17,808 complaints about possible health-order violations. Overall, inspectors have visited more than 17,000 restaurants, more than 3,500 grocery stores, more than 600 swimming pools and more than 3,000 businesses that aren’t issued permits by the health department.
Davis outlined a new enforcement strategy being implemented by the county, which will begin with a fine of up to $100 for a first offense, a $500 fine and seven-day permit suspension for a second violation, and another $500 fine and 30-day suspension — and possible start of revocation proceedings — for a third violation.
He said inspectors generally try to work with businesses to achieve compliance with the regulations, rather than trying to shut companies down.
“While some may consider (enforcement efforts) punitive or harsh, it’s really about finding a path to reopen our economic sectors,” Davis said. “This is an unprecedented public health emergency and we’re still learning and adapting as we navigate this crisis.
“COVID-19 is not going to disappear overnight. We all want our local businesses to be open and more people to get back to making a living and to thrive, but we all must operate responsibly. … Business owners and operators are critical partners in slowing the spread of COVID-19. It protects their employees, it protects their customers and it helps the entire community on the road to recovery.”
With recent summer-like weather, Davis said inspectors also visited 174 residential swimming pools and also found “generally good” compliance with rules limiting capacity, although he said there was “room for improvement” in the spacing of pool furniture to ensure physical distancing.
County public health director Barbara Ferrer said July 22 the county had no immediate plans to institute stricter stay-at-home or business-closure orders despite the recent uptick in cases. Davis’ general optimism appeared to echo that sentiment, but he said it will depend on the behavior of residents.
“We all have a responsibility to follow these orders,” Davis said. “That means we stay at home as much as possible. It means we practice physical distancing from those we don’t live with, and it means we must wear face coverings when we leave our house and are around others. These aren’t just obligations, they’re acts of love and kindness.
“I know it’s difficult especially on these gorgeous summer days, but I’m grateful for everyone’s sacrifice.”