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Column: When it comes to coronavirus, she’s L.A.’s version of Dr. Fauci

Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer
L.A. County Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, second from left, confers with with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti during a news conference March 4.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

On Thursday, when L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer sniffled during one of her daily televised pandemic briefings, my mind went to the obvious.

Was she OK?

TV reporter Dave Lopez was wondering the same thing and asked that very question.

“I have allergies,” Ferrer said, apologizing. “No, I’m not sick.”

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A couple of months ago, Ferrer was virtually unknown to most people. Now she’s such a familiar presence, appearing daily on TV with L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and county Supervisor Kathryn Barger, that a runny nose has us worried about her.

In Ferrer’s role as the top health officer in a county of 10 million people, she’s in the middle of every tough conversation about which businesses and institutions have to shut down, whether public and private hospitals are equipped and prepared to handle a possible surge, and what each of us has to do to make a difference.

She’s our very own local version of White House infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, the straight-talking, overworked doctor now so visible that I feel as though I can tell how many hours of sleep he gets each night.

“I met him once,” Ferrer said of Fauci, whose work she praised. That wasn’t surprising. Ferrer generously praises public health officials and workers at every level — federal, state and local — for their efforts.

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So who is this woman we’re all getting to know so well? What’s her daily routine inside the command center? And is she going to be able to help us flatten the coronavirus curve and save lives?

As to who she is, she’s not one to talk herself up. But Ferrer revealed a lot about herself when she asked — several hours after I had interviewed her by phone between TV briefings Thursday — if I could either not write about her at all, or at least make the column about all of her colleagues who get to work “extremely early” and go home late every night.

She’s right about the collective effort, but it’s Ferrer who steps to the microphone to deliver the daily statistics on the number of new cases and the latest mortality figures.

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“I’m sad to report an additional 13 deaths today,” Ferrer said at the early afternoon briefing with Garcetti on Thursday.

Later that day, appearing with Barger, Ferrer delivered more news about the pandemic, along with a somber expression of compassion and unity, and a sincere measure of hope.

“To all of you who either are praying for or caring for people who are sick with COVID-19, or you’ve lost a person to COVID-19, please know I keep you in my thoughts and prayers every day, and I share your sorrow at the loss of life, but I do know that we’re brave and there’s another side we’re going to get to,” Ferrer said.

“In this time of crisis, she’s doing a good job of keeping people informed and trying to anticipate what’s next,” said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, who preceded Ferrer, “and being honest about what she knows and doesn’t know.”

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Barger said she thinks the gravity of the situation sinks in a little more each day for all of us, and it’s taking a toll on those managing the response. It’s hard enough ordering businesses to close, Barger said, knowing the effect on owners and employees who might not return to work for months, if ever. She confers with Ferrer and her team on those issues, Barger said.

And then there’s the ever growing weight of the broader threat to public health, the upheaval of normalcy, and the dreaded uncertainty as a silent and invisible killer marches around the world.

“My takeaway in watching her over the last few weeks,” Barger said, “is that when she talks about the deaths … she feels it.”

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Ferrer was born in Puerto Rico and spent her childhood there. Then, as a young activist, she became a community organizer focused on unequal healthcare access for the poor. She thought about becoming a doctor, but after earning a bachelor’s degree at UC Santa Cruz, she attended Massachusetts universities for master’s degrees in education and public health, followed by a doctorate in social welfare.

She worked briefly in education but spent years in public health management in Boston before doing similar work in the nonprofit world. When the top public health job in L.A. County opened up in early 2017, Barger said county supervisors were impressed by the breadth of Ferrer’s work. In a county with healthcare access challenges for millions of residents, and a growing focus on preventive care, Ferrer fit the need.

Dr. Stephanie Hall, chief medical officer of Keck Hospital of USC, said there was some concern initially in the healthcare community about Ferrer not being a medical doctor, as her predecessor Fielding was. But Hall, who has been working with Ferrer in recent pandemic response planning sessions, thinks one of Ferrer’s strengths is a willingness to lean on deputies and others who have knowledge and skills she doesn’t possess.

These are some of the unusual new scenes across the Southland during the coronavirus outbreak.

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“I found her to be incredibly straightforward and honest,” said Hall, who recalled asking pointed questions three years ago that Ferrer admitted she didn’t have answers to. “I value that so much … because when some people want to lead … sometimes they add a spin or try to make it appear they know more than they do.”

Until a couple of months ago, Ferrer’s team of roughly 4,500 doctors, scientists, health inspectors and other employees had focused largely on the homelessness crisis, and the department was about to publish findings on the healthcare needs of 1,500 homeless people interviewed by her staff. Health risk prevention for the county’s children is another major focus, and the department under Ferrer’s command has been establishing well-being centers at 50 high schools, expected to reach 75,000 students annually.

Then came the coronavirus. Now Ferrer’s day starts early and is filled with endless discussions about testing, surge planning, equipment inventories, evolving protocols and strategies. She snacks on the run and hopes to get home to her husband in Echo Park in time for a late-night meal.

“Between the significant loss of life and the overwhelming of healthcare systems across the world, along with the economic disaster, I would say there’s nothing I could look back on and say, ‘Oh, this is what I expected,’” Ferrer said. “I think we have our tool kit for what to do … but I don’t think it prepares you for a magnitude as enormous as this.”

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Part of the challenge is to respond quickly to developing information, Ferrer said. On Thursday, with growing evidence that people can be contagious for 48 hours without having symptoms, and reports that the virus can be suspended in aerosol form as well as contained in droplets, her office began recommending that residents wear homemade masks when outdoors, leaving medical equipment available to healthcare professionals.

Ferrer said that when she, Garcetti and Barger do their daily briefing ballet of approaching the microphone, stepping away, then closing in again to answer questions, they’re trying to maintain a safe distance from one another and even the microphone. She said they use hand sanitizers before and after the briefings.

I asked if she eats takeout food and she said yes, and she thinks it’s safe with the right precautions such as careful handling and sanitizing of containers. She said her staff is doing telebriefings with restaurant owners to keep them up to date on the safest food-prep practices.

Social distancing is still our best medicine, Ferrer said, and she suggested that given my senior status, I should severely limit contact with others for their sake and mine. Noting that I still have to eat, I asked her about venturing into a supermarket, which seems to be one of the higher-risk activities at the moment, regardless of how old you are or when you shop.

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Food shopping is obviously essential, Ferrer said, but greater precautions need to be taken for the benefit of shoppers and employees. That means masks and distance and constant hand washing. And rather than have stores designate hours for seniors, Ferrer said, she wants them to expand free delivery programs.

“When I wake up, I feel like we’re here for a reason and it’s another day to do the best we can,” Ferrer said. “We should put our best foot forward, with each other, and go through the day with grace, knowing people are tired and sad and anxious, but that together we’re going to get through this. And there will be another side, and when that time comes, we’ll be able to celebrate it together.”

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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