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California

All L.A. County residents, even those without symptoms, can now get tested for COVID-19

Griffith Observatory
A man relaxes next to caution tape at Griffith Observatory on Tuesday as Los Angeles remains locked down because of the coronavirus.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Mayor Eric Garcetti has long said that expanding COVID-19 testing to all Angelenos, including those without symptoms, is a critical milestone that must be met before leaders can consider lifting some restrictions.

And now, he says, that milestone is a reality.

During a news conference Wednesday evening, Garcetti announced that all city residents were now eligible for free COVID-19 testing — a first-of-its-kind step for any major city in the U.S., he said. The mayor urged all residents to consider getting swabbed, noting that some people who feel fine can still be asymptomatic carriers.

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“You can’t put a price on the peace of mind of knowing that you can’t infect somebody around you,” he said.

The mayor also said that L.A. County residents could be tested at sites run by the city of Los Angeles.

Garcetti’s announcement came hours after a grim update from health officials: L.A. County saw its largest increase in new coronavirus cases reported in a single day since the pandemic began.

Public Health Department Director Barbara Ferrer announced 1,541 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, nearly 1,000 more than reported the previous day. The large increase, which pushed the county’s total number of infections past 22,400, is mostly the result of a boost in testing as well as a lag in weekend reporting, Ferrer said.

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County health officials also reported 56 additional fatalities linked to the virus, bringing the county’s death toll to 1,056.

Of those who most recently died, 41 were older than 65, nine were 41 to 65 and two were 18 to 40. Information about the other cases wasn’t immediately available. Residents in institutional settings, including assisted living facilities and nursing homes, account for 47% of all county deaths, Ferrer said.

The latest maps and charts on the spread of COVID-19 in Los Angeles County, including cases, deaths, closures and restrictions.

Despite the increase in confirmed cases and new deaths, Ferrer said, the county’s rate of hospitalizations and the percentage of people testing positive for the virus have remained fairly stable. As of Wednesday, 4,715 people who have tested positive for the virus countywide have been hospitalized at some point during their illness. This represents about 22% of positive cases in Los Angeles County, Ferrer said.

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“This is because of all the work you’re doing to slow the spread,” she said. “As we prepare for recovery, tracking the information on the number of new hospitalizations every day will be critically important to assessing how well we’re continuing our work to slow the spread.”

Health officials also noted that there has been increased testing at prisons throughout the county, which has also led to an increase in the number of confirmed cases.

The news comes after nearly half of the inmates at the federal prison at Terminal Island in San Pedro tested positive for COVID-19 in what has become the nation’s worst outbreak in a federal penitentiary.

As of Tuesday, 443 of the prison’s 1,055 inmates had the virus, along with 10 staff members. Two inmates have already died of complications related to the virus, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

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Ferrer said the “large increase” in those testing positive at the Terminal Island prison is a reflection of a boost in testing within the federal penitentiary for those without visible symptoms. That testing began there last week, she said.

“The vast majority of them are asymptomatic,” she said. She did not say how many of those testing positive have been hospitalized.

Los Angeles County continues to be the coronavirus hotbed of California, accounting for an outsize number of deaths and total cases. The number of coronavirus infections statewide surpassed 48,000 on Wednesday, while the number of deaths passed 1,900.

Officials have said in light of those figures that restrictions on movements must continue for now.

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Still, county officials are developing a plan to ease the Safer at Home order, which is set to expire May 15. Ferrer said this week that there were no plans to extend the current order but that, as the deadline approaches, officials would reevaluate what was best for the county.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted this week to establish a plan to work with businesses, labor partners and community leaders to lift restrictions. Officials have emphasized that lifting restrictions will happen gradually rather than all at once.

“Restoring the local economy and uplifting employees and employers throughout the region is at the forefront of all of our conversations,” Supervisor Kathryn Barger said Wednesday. “I’m proud that we’re taking concrete actions and moving forward with plans in place. In addition to prioritizing economic recovery we remain deeply focused on the safety and well-being of all of our residents.”

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The push to ease stay-at-home restrictions and open public amenities is also being widely felt in Orange County.

Laguna Beach city officials voted Tuesday to reopen the city’s beaches for several hours on weekday mornings after a six-week closure. A few miles north in Newport Beach, city leaders voted to keep their beaches open despite a stern rebuke from Gov. Gavin Newsom after crowds swarmed the beaches over the weekend.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved a set of business guidelines for reopening the region, seeking to “strike a balance between the need for continued protection from the disease and the need for the economy to function again,” Supervisor Don Wagner said.

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The guidelines, which outline physical distancing requirements in the workplace, also note that employers should require customer-facing workers to wear disposable gloves or wash their hands or use hand sanitizer every 30 minutes. Face coverings should be provided to all employees and workers should also have their temperatures taken before starting a shift, per the guidelines.

Regardless of what guidelines counties adopt, the ultimate say on when and how businesses can get back up and running is up to Newsom, who imposed the nation’s first statewide stay-at-home order last month.

L.A. County supervisors approved a proposed $35.5-billion budget, but it’s likely to change as the financial effects of the coronavirus become clear.

Newsom has released a four-part plan that he said could have some businesses running in weeks and some schools reopened by the summer.

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But the outline, officials acknowledge, still has many uncertainties. It is contingent on improvement in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak and on increased testing to assess how the illness is spreading.

Under Newsom’s plan, some retail businesses, manufacturing, schools and open spaces could reopen first, with strict social distancing rules. Down the line, some entertainment venues and religious institutions could reopen. Live sports, concerts and other crowded events would be the last to resume.

Though the state has recently begun to see the number of hospitalized patients flatten and become relatively stable, California saw a modest increase in those numbers Tuesday and again Wednesday, Newsom said.

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During the question-and-answer portion of Newsom’s daily briefing Wednesday, Wagner got on a reporter’s phone and mentioned Orange County’s vote on business guidelines from the previous day. Supervisors had directed county staff to send their guidelines to Sacramento in an effort to show that “it is possible for policymakers, medical professionals and the business community to be effective in a crisis,” according to a news release.

Newsom responded by noting that Orange County has the fourth-highest number of people hospitalized statewide amid the pandemic. The county had 175 patients in the hospital as of Wednesday.

“I’m concerned about that,” Newsom said. “We have a lot of work to do to keep people healthy and keep people safe.”


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