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Coronavirus Today: California’s invisible hot spots

Good evening. I’m Diya Chacko, and it’s Monday, June 15. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

By mid-March, Los Angeles had reported fewer than 250 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Local health officials were regularly assuring residents that the county was investigating each case and performing contact tracing. However, they failed to notify the public when an airline passenger from New York City and another from Seoul brought the disease into LAX, The Times has learned. Without instructions to self-quarantine or seek testing, more than 200 other people on those two flights returned to their families and communities ignorant of their exposure, potentially seeding new outbreaks.

The mishandling of these cases is raising questions about how well public health officials have carried out contact tracing thus far — and whether they are prepared for an expected increase in cases as California reopens. Counties are balancing the opening of businesses with trying to prevent new outbreaks as coronavirus cases continue to rise, though there’s debate over whether that increase is due in part to the reopening of the economy or is the result of more testing.

Companies such as Tesla continue to keep a lid on the number of infections at their facilities, and the counties in which they’re located are citing federal privacy law to explain the silence. But elected officials and advocates for workers are beginning to speak out about the tight hold health agencies are keeping on data that could better inform the public about potential hot spots. “When you’re not giving people that kind of information, people get justifiably cynical,” said Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese. “My constituents start to wonder, how serious is this really?”

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Public health officials are pushing for more state funding, but it’s an uphill battle in a time of massive budget cuts. Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Democratic-controlled Legislature are expected to reject a plea from local health officials for an additional $150 million a year. One reason is that public health doesn’t enjoy the same lobbying power that hospitals, doctors or public employee unions do. “We don’t have millions of dollars to spend on billboards, and we can’t call in a hundred people to stand up at a hearing and say, ‘I didn’t get sick because of public health measures,’” said the executive director of the Health Officers Assn. of California.

By the numbers

California cases and deaths as of 3:30 p.m. PDT Monday:

More than 153,400 California cases and at least 5,087 deaths as of 3:30 p.m. PDT Monday, June 15.
(Compiled by L.A. Times Graphics)

Track the latest numbers and how they break down in California with our graphics.

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The Newsom administration's roadmap to reopening California.
(Priya Krishnakumar/Los Angeles Times)

See which counties are reopening with our tracker.

Across California

Newsom said Monday that California’s COVID-19 hospitalizations remain stable, weeks after restrictions started to be modified, and that the safeguards in place are continuing to slow the spread of the coronavirus. He also said the willingness of Californians to heed the stay-at-home order ensured that the state’s hospital system would have enough capacity to care for patients. “We never made the case that the stay-at-home order was a permanent state,” he said. “We wanted to buy time. We wanted to mitigate a peak and a spike.

As California continues to reopen, some counties haven’t yet met all the necessary criteria and are being monitored by the state. These include Los Angeles, Fresno, Imperial, Kern, Kings, San Joaquin, Santa Barbara, Tulare and Ventura.

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Imperial County, a rural region bordered by San Diego County, Arizona and Mexico, has the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 cases in California: 1,078 per 100,000 people over the last 14 days. Hospitals are running out of capacity to treat new patients and are transferring them to facilities as far away as the Bay Area. Yet local businesses and the county Board of Supervisors are pushing to keep reopening despite their failure to meet state requirements, and hundreds of residents believe that doing so would put lives in danger. A woman circulating a petition asking Newsom to ignore local officials’ request for reopening control put it this way: “What’s more important, people or business?”

The city of Vernon, located southeast of downtown Los Angeles, is home to almost 2,000 businesses, and most of their roughly 55,000 employees commute from other working-class, heavily Latino cities. Concern is growing that outbreaks originating in Vernon will spread to these communities, as the disease infects workers in a number of factories and processing plants.

The Vans U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, considered one of the largest surfing and action sports competitions in the world, has been canceled this year. The event was supposed to include skate and BMX competitions during its original Aug. 1-9 schedule.

And the 2021 Oscars have been postponed from Feb. 28 to April 25 out of concern that COVID-19 cases could surge in the fall and winter. The eligibility period for consideration has also been extended: To qualify, a feature film must now have a release date between Jan. 1, 2020, and Feb. 28, 2021. Eligibility rules have already been relaxed.

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Resources

— For general safety, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds (here’s a super-fun how-to video). Stop touching your face, and keep your phone clean. Practice social distancing, maintaining a six-foot radius of personal space in public. And wear a mask if you leave home. Here’s how to do it right.
— Watch for symptoms including fever, cough, shortness of breath, chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and loss of taste or smell. If you’re worried you might be infected, call your doctor or urgent care clinic before going.
— Here’s how to care for someone with COVID-19, from monitoring their symptoms to preventing the virus’ spread.
— If your job has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, here’s how to file for unemployment.
— Here are some free resources for restaurant workers and entertainment industry professionals having trouble making ends meet.
— Advice for helping kids navigate pandemic life includes being honest about uncertainties, acknowledging their feelings and sticking to a routine. Here’s guidance from the CDC.
— In need of mental health services? Here are resources for coping during the crisis from the CDC and the L.A. County Department of Public Health. L.A. County residents can also call (800) 854-7771 or text “LA” to 741741.

Around the nation and the world

The Food and Drug Administration on Monday revoked emergency authorization for hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine to be used as treatments for COVID-19, saying that the malaria drugs, heavily promoted by President Trump, are unlikely to be effective in treating the disease and that their unknown benefits “do not outweigh the known and potential risks.” The drugs can cause heart rhythm problems, severely low blood pressure and muscle or nerve damage. The move means that shipments obtained by the federal government will no longer be distributed to state and local health authorities for use against the coronavirus.

As New York steps into the first phase of its reopening and residents emerge from lockdown, they’re finding a changed city. Broadway, museums and many hotels, shops and restaurants remain closed. Subways and buses are still largely empty, bereft of office workers, students and tourists. Many of the city’s wealthiest left long ago for their country homes. Now the less fortunate are contemplating whether there is still a place for them. “People are so stressed out,” said a construction worker who lives in the Bronx. “That’s the truth, we’re all afraid.”

Fears of a second wave of the coronavirus are rising in China after Beijing’s health authorities reported six new confirmed cases Saturday, 36 new cases Sunday and another 36 cases Monday. All were locally transmitted infections, breaking a months-long trend of China reporting mostly imported COVID-19 cases while domestic transmission seemed to be largely under control. It is a stark reminder that the virus can return after months of seemingly no local spread — even in a country that has taken severe measures to halt transmission at home and from abroad.

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Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from readers who want to know: Is it safe to visit museums? Reporters Jessica Gelt and Deborah Vankin looked into it.

Under L.A. County’s orders from last week, museums are allowed to reopen to visitors; however, most told The Times they’re not yet prepared to do so and that the wait might range from a few weeks to more than a month.

Many museums said they need time to carefully review and implement the county’s guidelines, which range from attendance limits, temperature checks and face masks to gathering guest information for contact tracing in the event of an outbreak. However, executing those protocols is particularly challenging when daily operations have been radically disrupted: Exhibition schedules are in flux, touring exhibits are dependent on the reopening plans of other institutions, and installing new shows will take longer because of the need for social distancing during construction.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Getty have not yet set reopening dates. The Broad said it is aiming for midsummer, and the Skirball Cultural Center said it plans to remain closed at least through June 30.

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The Natural History Museum and its sister operation at the La Brea Tar Pits have targeted late summer, and some museums associated with universities — such as USC Fisher Museum of Art — have said they hope to reopen with the fall semester.

The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens has announced that it will reopen to the public on July 1.

Got a question? Our reporters covering the coronavirus outbreak want to hear from you. Email us your questions, and we’ll do our best to answer them. You can find more answers in our Frequently Asked Questions roundup and on our coronavirus roundup page.

For the most up-to-date coronavirus coverage from The Times, visit our homepage and our Health section, listen to our “Coronavirus in California” podcast and follow us on Twitter and on Instagram.


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