Newsletter: A health reporter explains the coronavirus

About 200 American evacuees from Wuhan, China, disembark a plane at March Air Reserve Base on Wednesday morning in Riverside County.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, Jan. 30, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

It was an unlikely sight on L.A. public transit, at least outside of peak fire season. Amid the Lakers jerseys, crying babies and assorted commuters, three people in a single subway car were wearing some form of surgical mask or N95 respirator. This was on Wednesday morning, on a Purple Line train headed downtown.

About an hour before I spotted the masks on the subway, a State Department-chartered jumbo jet had touched down at a Riverside County Air Force base 60-some miles to the east. The plane was ferrying 201 Americans out of Wuhan, China — the inland megacity at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. The passengers, who had cleared a preliminary health screening during a refueling stop in Alaska, aren’t under an official quarantine. But they will stay on the base for a 72-hour hold and are being encouraged to remain there for 14 days.

More than 6,000 miles across the globe, a quarantine of “absolutely unprecedented” scope was in place in and around Wuhan. Chinese authorities have indefinitely barred 50 million people across 17 cities from traveling and advised them to stay home to contain the rapidly spreading virus. First detected late last year in Wuhan, this new strain of the coronavirus is known as 2019-nCoV.

[Read more: “Tears, fear and panic grip China as coronavirus spreads” in the Los Angeles Times]


Most experts believe that the virus originated in humans by jumping from an animal to a human. Human-to-human transmission has since been confirmed in multiple countries. As of Wednesday night, the virus had killed at least 170 people people and infected more 7,000. So far, just five cases have been reported in the United States, including two in Southern California.

So, how scared should you be about the coronavirus? I called up someone much smarter than me — in this case, Times health and science reporter Emily Baumgaertner, who has a master’s degree in public health and reported from the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic in West Africa — to talk it through.

The biggest questions to answer

New viruses provide unique challenges. “What’s tricky about something like this is that you’re sort of starting from ground zero,” Baumgaertner said. “So, it’s hard to make predictions on anything when a virus is novel.”

Scientists are racing to answer a host of questions about the virus. But there’s one big question that undergirds many of the others: What is the denominator? In other words, how many total cases are there?

“The reason that underlies every other question is you can’t determine the death rate, you can’t determine what portion of the cases are severe, you can’t determine how likely it is to spread and where it’s likely to spread if you don’t know how many cases there are,” Baumgaertner explained. “That’s sort of the No. 1 question that hundreds of experts are working together to try to answer.” Of course, that number itself is also constantly increasing.

How worried should Californians be?

“Californians should wash their hands,” Baumgaertner said. But that basic tenet of hygiene is about all that’s required of us, at least at this point.

“The vast majority of Americans will not be exposed to this virus. If you are not an old person or a person with a compromised immune system, there’s no reason you should be as worried about coronavirus as you should be about the winter flu.” Healthcare workers who are working with the two patients in California are, of course, at increased risk. Hospitals will need to work to ensure that their institutions don’t become places where the infection spreads.

But, she continued, “the average person is more than welcome to go to the grocery store without fear.”

Government responses in the U.S. and China

China faced global criticism for how the country handled the 2002-03 SARS outbreak. Has it learned from those mistakes?

“From the looks of it, China is doing a better job with information sharing on a global level than they did during SARS,” Baumgaertner said. “Information sharing during the SARS epidemic was catastrophically poor and the obfuscation of numbers led to a global explosion that many people believe was preventable, had the Chinese informed other governments of what they were up against and welcomed help to fight it.”

Some have critiqued China’s slowness in responding to the coronavirus outbreak and not putting travel restrictions in place sooner. But she said experts are cautiously optimistic that this response will play out better than the SARS outbreak. On Tuesday, Chinese authorities agreed to let the World Health Organization send global health experts into the country to help.

Before we got off the phone, I had another, equally sensitive question for her. The Trump administration has sought to make deep funding cuts to the sciences. With that in mind, do we have any reason to worry about the current strength of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?

“It’s a question a lot of people have asked me,” she said. “And truthfully, it appears that the CDC is as capable as ever to fight this. Despite those cuts across the sciences and healthcare, this administration is very concerned about security and national security, and as a result of that, they’re still pretty robust when it comes to fighting pathogens.”

“The CDC is the best in the world, and the most equipped agency in the world to fight something like this,” she continued. “But it’s also a novel virus — so nobody is completely prepared, and nobody can say for sure that they’ll be able to handle it.”

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

A second terrifying high-rise fire has Barrington Plaza residents demanding answers and renewed calls to close a loophole for sprinklers. A fire in a 25-story Westside residential building sent residents climbing out windows and fleeing to the rooftop to escape the flames. For many, it also brought a terrifying moment of déjà vu. A little more than six years ago, a fire hit the residential tower, causing extensive damage and leaving some tenants homeless. Los Angeles Times


The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department is investigating an alleged hit-and-run involving an assistant fire chief. He allegedly crashed into a parked car, sending it 160 feet forward, and fled to his Santa Clarita home. Los Angeles Times

Now you can explore Hollyhock House, Frank Lloyd Wright’s first L.A. project, from the comfort of your laptop. See the original designs here. Los Angeles Times

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright used pencil to sketch the west facade of the Hollyhock House he was designing in 1918 for oil heiress Aline Barnsdall. Now, all his archival blueprints and drawings of his first Los Angeles project are available for close examination online.
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright used pencil to sketch the west facade of the Hollyhock House he was designing in 1918 for oil heiress Aline Barnsdall. Now, all his archival blueprints and drawings of his first Los Angeles project are available for close examination online.
(Hollyhock House Archive, Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs)

Navigating art spaces in Los Angeles: Two art writers put together a guide to some of their favorite galleries, museums and nonprofits. Hyperallergic

A widely exhibited Paul Gauguin sculpture owned by the Getty Museum isn’t actually a Gauguin. The sculpture, which the Getty probably acquired for more than $3 million, has been moved to storage. Art Newspaper

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For years, Father Alejandro Solalinde defended Central American migrants’ rights in Mexico. His support appears to have buckled under a new administration. Los Angeles Times


California lawmakers failed to pass Senate Bill 50, a piece of high-profile legislation intended to dramatically increase home building in the state. The bill fell three votes short of passing. The bill’s author, Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), said he planned to try to bring it back for another vote Thursday — the deadline for its passage out of the Senate. Los Angeles Times

Did a succession of four San Francisco mayors ignore red flags about an arrested public works chief for decades? “For nearly 20 years, longtime Public Works leader Mohammed Nuru has been an integral part of the so-called ‘city family,’ a go-to official relied on by mayors and supervisors to clean up the sort of messes that can easily derail the career of a big-city politician.” San Francisco Chronicle

How clear is Rep. Doug LaMalfa’s path to reelection in far Northern California? California’s North State remains a “a pocket of ardent conservatism,” but the four-term Republican faces his most serious challenger in years. Redding Record Searchlight


For nearly a year, mysterious projectiles were hitting cars on Central California highways, at times breaking car windows and injuring those inside. Now, a 52-year-old man has been accused of slingshotting marbles at vehicles. He pleaded not guilty to 74 counts of assault with a deadly weapon, among other charges. Salinas Californian


The publisher of the contentious migrant novel “American Dirt” has canceled its book tour and acknowledged “deep inadequacies” in its rollout of the bestselling book. Los Angeles Times

Are San Diego hotels nearing the end of a nine-year boom cycle? San Diego County’s hotel revenue growth fell by more than 2% last year, marking the first yearly decline since 2009. San Diego Union-Tribune

How a 21-year-old bought North Lake Tahoe’s most beloved burger joint. The Tahoe native started flipping burgers at the Char-Pit as a teenager. SFGate


Los Angeles: partly sunny, 76 . San Diego: sunny, 70. San Francisco: partly sunny, 62. San Jose: sunny, 66. Sacramento: sunny, 66. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Erika Weisbrich:

The 1982 day a 49er came to Macy’s in Stockton, families jostled around me, squeezing their newly purchased Niners gear. I craned my thin tween neck to see Dwight Clark sitting under spotlights. The air smelled like tennis shoes. Though no jock, I sprang up on tiptoes. Suddenly, the crowd opened.... His tanned hand danced his Sharpie across my T-shirt. He lifted it toward me with a smile and raised his gaze to the devoted fan behind me. A gangly girl, I swam in the shirt, but wearing it, I could fit into something huge.

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.