Newsletter: What’s the true number of coronavirus cases in L.A.?

A scientist presents an antibody test for the coronavirus in a laboratory in Germany.
(Associated Press)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, April 21, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

How many Angelenos have been infected with the coronavirus? The official tally of confirmed cases in the county now hovers just above 13,800. But new research shows that the true number could be far, far higher.

In early April, USC researchers and county public health officials embarked on the first large-scale study tracking the spread of the coronavirus in the county. Over the course of two days, they tested the blood of 863 adults for coronavirus antibodies — which serve as an indication of past exposure. Participants were selected through a market research firm to represent the makeup of the county.

On Monday, an initial report from that study was released. Based on their findings, researchers estimate that about 4.1% of the county’s adult population could have an antibody to the virus. After adjusting that estimate for the statistical margin of error, their findings suggest that somewhere between 2.8% and 5.6% of adults in the county have antibodies to the virus in their blood.


[Read the story: “Hundreds of thousands in L.A. County may have been infected with coronavirus, study finds” in the Los Angeles Times]

As my colleague Melanie Mason explains in her story, that would translate to roughly 221,000 to 442,000 adults who had recovered from an infection in L.A. County by early April. But at the time researchers were conducting the study, there were fewer than 8,000 confirmed cases in the county. One doesn’t need a PhD to know that these are staggeringly different numbers.

So, what does all this mean? The study suggests that the coronavirus is much more widespread than originally known, but also potentially much less lethal.

[See also: “What is the fatality rate for the new coronavirus, and why does it keep changing?” in the Los Angeles Times]

The case fatality rate in Los Angeles County is currently estimated to be around 4%. But that calculation, which requires dividing the number of deaths by the number of reported cases, is only based on known cases. If there are far more more cases than previously thought, then that fatality rate will be far lower.

Still, as Melanie explained in her story, the leader of the study cautioned against solely focusing on how lethal the disease is.


“We are very early in the epidemic, and many more people in L.A. County could potentially be impacted,” study leader Neeraj Sood, a professor at USC’s Price School for Public Policy, said. “And as those number of infections arise, so will the number of deaths, the number of hospitalizations, and the number of ICU admissions.”

As health reporter Soumya Karlamangla noted on Twitter, another major takeaway from the study — based on the virus potentially being so much more widespread than we knew — is that “there are probably a lot of people infected with coronavirus who have mild symptoms or no symptoms.” Which means that social distancing remains more important than ever.

“We need to assume that at any point in time, we could be infected and that all of the other people we come in contact with could also be infected,” Barbara Ferrer, the county’s top health official, said Monday.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Gov. Gavin Newsom resists pressure to ease California’s coronavirus stay-at-home order: On Monday, Newsom acknowledged that pressure from Californians and local governments is building to modify the statewide stay-at-home order carried out to stem to spread of the coronavirus, but he said restrictions will remain in place until the threat to public health subsides and adequate testing and other safeguards are implemented. Los Angeles Times

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti has unveiled a $10.5-billion budget for the city that imposes cuts across an array of city agencies, with nearly 16,000 city workers being furloughed in response to the economic fallout from the coronavirus outbreak. Garcetti’s proposed spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1 is expected to result in fewer street repairs, fewer trees trimmed and longer wait times for the city’s 311 public services hotline. Graffiti paint-out services, neighborhood councils, gang intervention programs and various infrastructure projects are also on track to have less money in the coming fiscal year, aides to Garcetti said. Los Angeles Times


What David Lynch is doing in quarantine: “If the empty streets of America have taken on a distinctly Lynchian feel during lockdown, David Lynch himself hasn’t noticed. The writer-director ... has been holed up inside his Hollywood studio during the COVID-19 crisis, busying himself with painting, music and film projects.” The Hollywood Reporter

Director and producer David Lynch
Director-producer David Lynch: Isn’t his face oddly soothing in these uncertain times?
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Painful closures lie ahead for L.A. galleries. Here’s how 35 are bracing for the worst. Los Angeles Times

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More than 1 million U.S. citizens have been blocked from receiving stimulus checks because they are married to immigrants. The CARES Act blocks U.S. citizens blocks U.S. citizens if they file a joint tax return with an immigrant spouse who does not have a Social Security number. Los Angeles Times

A hold on immigration? President Trump tweeted Monday night that he will sign an executive order “to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States” because of the coronavirus. He offered no immediate details as to what immigration programs might be affected by the order. Associated Press

“Like a time bomb.” Tijuana’s hospitals are under pressure and understaffed as the coronavirus spreads. Los Angeles Times


Joe Biden’s running mate search moves into high gear amid conflicting demands. His campaign is expected to launch its formal process for vetting candidates soon, perhaps as early as this week. Los Angeles Times

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s secretive $1-billion mask deal with a Chinese automaker has sparked a bipartisan chorus of concerns in the Legislature. Los Angeles Times


Bay Area coronavirus hospitalizations are declining even as California’s slowly rise. Epidemiologists call the trend encouraging, but caution that things could still quickly change. San Francisco Chronicle


Existential questions for a Big Sur icon: What will the future of the countercultural Esalen Institute look like with its front gate shut to visitors? San Francisco Chronicle


Desperately in need of sourdough starter in San Francisco? Check your local telephone pole, where one generous bread-baking individual has taken to giving it away. “But there are certainly questions: 1.) is it safe to use a bag of sourdough starter, and 2.) how viable is the starter after hanging on a telephone pole for hours, or even days?” SFGate

More fun Zoom backgrounds, Golden State edition: Take a “trip” to Dodger Stadium, Venice Beach or the Hollywood sign with these California-themed Zoom backgrounds from our photographers. Los Angeles Times

Is marijuana the element missing from your quarantine victory garden? Well, according to this story, it’s easier than you think to grow and takes far less equipment than becoming a master baker. LAist

A dispatch from the Sunshine State: A Florida woman has started running through her neighborhood in a 7-foot-tall inflatable unicorn costume (white with rainbow hooves, tail and mane) with the aim of spreading joy. Tampa Bay Times

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Los Angeles: sunny, 73. San Diego: partly sunny, 67. San Francisco: sunny, 64. San Jose: partly sunny, 69. Fresno: sunny, 75. Sacramento: sunny, 78. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Barry Ulrich:

In 1955 the promise of a job in California prompted my parents to sell their Cincinnati three story home and move to Riverside with their two boys. Route 66, then Needles, our first night in California, where at night it probably got down to 100 degrees that Labor Day weekend. Driving across the Mojave, my mother complained to my dad that if our destination was like the desert, she would demand that we return to Ohio. She changed her mind when we arrived in orange tree-lined Riverside. I still fondly recall riding my bike alongside the groves, pulling off a ripe orange and eating the fruit on my way to junior high school.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.