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Coronavirus Today: Was the virus in L.A. last year?

Good evening. I’m Soumya Karlamangla, and it’s Thursday, Sept. 10. Here’s the latest on the coronavirus from California and beyond.

It often seems like every other person I know insists that months before the nation shut down or the World Health Organization officially recognized that we’re in a pandemic, they contracted COVID-19. This affliction, which the Washington Post called “ThinkIhadititis,” offers some people a sense of security in uncertain times. Believing you already survived a bout with the deadly coronavirus gives you a kind of armor as it kills people around you.

I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I suffer from a version of this myself. In mid-December, I became sicker than I had ever been. Stomach problems, migraines, brain fog — name a symptom, I had it. And it lasted for months. The first time I wrote about COVID-19, way back in January, I was lying in bed at home, unable to sit up for more than about an hour at a time.

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But the timing of my illness never really made sense. China didn’t announce the original outbreak of mysterious pneumonia cases in Wuhan until Dec. 31, and the first known coronavirus case on U.S. shores wasn’t caught until mid-January. So could there really have been enough of the virus circulating in Los Angeles for me to fall sick in December? According to new research, the answer might be yes.

In a study published Thursday in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, scientists from UCLA and their colleagues at the University of Washington documented an unmistakable uptick in patients seeking treatment for coughs at UCLA clinics, emergency rooms and hospitals starting the week of Dec. 22. The findings suggest that something was sickening people beyond just the regular seasonal flu.

The researchers searched through medical records going back five years and focused on patients who complained of a cough. Then they compared the number of cough patients this past winter to the numbers seen in five previous winters. What they found was a suspiciously large jump in patients starting the week of Dec. 22.

The researchers didn’t conduct any diagnostic tests, so they can’t say with certainty that any of these cough patients were COVID-19 patients. Some may have had the flu or another illness. But if the coronavirus had indeed been spreading under the radar since around Christmas, the pattern of patient visits to UCLA facilities would have looked a lot like what actually happened, they wrote in their paper.

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Even with these latest findings, the reality is that we probably won’t ever be able to say with certainty when COVID-19 arrived in L.A. But there is a growing body of evidence that it arrived earlier than we once thought, including this latest study.

That doesn’t mean that everyone who had a cold in December had COVID-19. A few months ago, I took an antibody test to see if I had indeed caught the coronavirus. And, much to my surprise, it was negative.

By the numbers

California cases and deaths as of 5:00 p.m. PDT on Thursday:

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

See the current status of California’s reopening, county by county, with our tracker.

A map of California showing counties by what tier they've been assigned, based on the status of their coronavirus outbreak.
A description of the four tiers to which California assigns counties based on the severity of their coronavirus outbreak.
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Across California

Frozen food manufacturer Overhill Farms and its temporary employment agency have been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars by California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health for failing to take adequate steps to protect hundreds of workers — the agency’s largest fine for coronavirus health violations. After visits to two facilities in Vernon, Cal/OSHA inspectors found inadequate social distancing among employees when they clocked in and out, hung out in the breakroom, worked on the conveyor line and performed other tasks. Officials also accused the companies of failing to investigate more than 20 cases of the coronavirus among employees, as well as the death of one worker who contracted COVID-19.

A mobile coronavirus testing kiosk opened Thursday at Union Station with the aim of accommodating people who don’t have cars. Roughly 500 tests will be available each day from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Results should be available within 24 hours.

The California Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected lawsuits that sought to reopen schools, refusing to overturn Gov. Gavin Newsom’s directives limiting in-classroom instruction to slow the spread of COVID-19. Lawsuits seeking to reopen schools statewide had been brought by the Orange County Board of Education and others and had been considered a long shot. Still, one of the lawyers behind the suits said the fight would continue in the state’s lower courts.

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Meanwhile, L.A. County won’t let schools fully reopen until at least November, and all Cal State universities will remain primarily online all year.

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 there.
— Need a COVID-19 test? Here’s how to receive a free test if you’re in L.A. County. And here’s a map of testing sites across California.
— 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 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 Mental Health. L.A. County residents can also call (800) 854-7771 or text “LA” to 741741.
— For domestic violence victims, the pandemic can pose a “worst-case scenario,” advocates say. If you or someone you know is experiencing such abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-SAFE (7233) or L.A. County’s hotline at (800) 978-3600. Here are more ways to get help.

Around the nation and the world

The prospects for a new federal coronavirus relief package dimmed Thursday as Senate Democrats blocked a slimmed-down Republican proposal that did not include another round of $1,200 stimulus checks for Americans, assistance for state governments or other economic aid. Experts say it’s unlikely Congress will produce another stimulus bill before the November election. Negotiations between House Democrats and the White House remain stalled, with Republicans rallying around a $500-billion proposal and Democrats insisting that at least $2.2 trillion is needed.

Gender reveal parties started before COVID-19, but they’ve become all the rage in the age of social distancing. They’re getting bigger and flashier, and sometimes starting wildfires. “There’s that sense of communal ritual that we are often missing, especially during COVID,” said one expert. “Maybe no one is in attendance, but you’re putting on this huge show through social media.”

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Even when he was sick with COVID-19, the Rev. Greg Lewis didn’t stop fighting for the right of Black people to vote. A few weeks into his illness, the Milwaukee pastor — who has since recovered — became the lead plaintiff in a suit to postpone Wisconsin’s presidential primary because of the roaring pandemic. When he was rushed to an intensive care unit, he kept working the phones, urging fellow Black pastors to do what they could to ensure voters could cast their ballots safely. He fears the pandemic, already taking a greater health toll on people of color, will make voter suppression worse than usual.

Your questions answered

Today’s question is from readers who want to know: Is it OK for workers to come into your home if you’ve got something that needs to be repaired?

If the level of coronavirus spread in your community is particularly high, consider postponing the service unless it’s absolutely necessary. Or if you’re comfortable having a repair person alone in your home, think about going out while the work is being done. There’s no reason for you to take risks you could have avoided.

If you need something fixed urgently, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has some tips to make sure the interaction is as safe as possible.

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Before the visit, review the details of what needs fixing with the service provider. Offer as much information as possible, including, for example, pictures of what they’ll be fixing. This will reduce the amount of time they’ll need to spend in your home. Also confirm that they will be wearing a mask for the duration of the visit, and be sure to do the same.

When they arrive, don’t let them inside if they seem sick or aren’t wearing a mask. You should wear a mask as well, as should everyone else in your household.

Keep at least six feet between you, and avoid shaking hands or having long conversations indoors. Any conversations should take place outdoors, when possible, according to the CDC. You should also try to maximize ventilation inside the home by turning on the air conditioning or opening windows.

Finally, after the person leaves, clean and disinfect any surfaces they touched.

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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 in our reopening tracker.

For the most up-to-date coronavirus coverage from The Times over the weekend, visit our homepage and our Health section, sign up for our breaking news alerts, and follow us on Twitter and on Instagram.


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