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Coronavirus Today: The disputed danger of aerosols

Good evening. I’m Lila Seidman, a reporter here at The Times, and it’s Monday, Sept. 21. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

You might think that this far into a pandemic that has claimed nearly 200,000 American lives, scientists would have a pretty clear idea on how the coronavirus spreads from person to person. But a possible snafu with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website highlights just how much uncertainty remains.

After a now-infamous choir practice in Washington state’s Skagit County left 45 out of 60 singers infected with the coronavirus and caused two deaths, researchers got serious about investigating whether the virus could spread not just through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person sneezes or coughs but via aerosolized particles as well. Aerosols can hang in the air for up to three hours, which means they have the potential to infect people even if they remain six feet apart.

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Although the CDC and the World Health Organization have downplayed the danger of aerosols, scientists have warned the public that activities like group singing can be dangerous. They’ve implored the WHO to revise its advice, prompting the United Nations agency to at least acknowledge that aerosols can make poorly ventilated indoor environments risky.

Over the weekend, it appeared that the CDC had embraced the view that aerosols and respiratory droplets together were “the main way the virus spreads.” Those words were posted on the CDC’s website with little fanfare — though once other scientists realized they were there, they were more than happy to see them.

But any sense of validation they might have felt was soon put on hold. On Monday, the agency went back to its previous advice about how how the virus spreads, removing the references to aerosols. The apparently new advice was really just a draft that wasn’t ready for prime time and was made public by accident, the agency said. It is unclear whether the removed guidance will reappear after a scientific review is complete.

Some scientists said they can’t help wondering whether the back-and-forth was a mistake, as the CDC claims, or whether the agency had been pressured by Trump administration officials to downplay the dangers of the virus. Earlier about-faces, especially regarding testing protocols, have undermined the agency’s scientific credibility.

If aerosols really are a main source of viral transmission, the current advice about maintaining six feet of social distance and cloth face coverings will need to be strengthened, especially when people are gathered indoors, experts said. Proper ventilation, increased distancing and wearing snugger masks could become important factors in controlling the spread of the virus.

By the numbers

California cases and deaths as of 6:49 p.m. PDT:

More than 790,500 confirmed cases and more than 15,000 deaths.
(Los Angeles Times Graphics)

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

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

A map of California showing the tiers to which counties have been assigned based on their local level of coronavirus risk.
The tiers to which California counties are assigned based on coronavirus risk level. These determine what can reopen.

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Across California

Coronavirus deaths in California crossed the 15,000 mark on Sunday, putting the state just behind Texas in lives lost to COVID-19 but still far behind New York, which has recorded more than 33,000. In a sign that better days may be ahead, the number of daily new cases in the Golden State appears to be leveling out, and hospitalizations are dropping. The real question is whether those trends will hold up this week, as the data begin to reflect the consequences of Labor Day weekend festivities. Until the numbers are in, many state and local officials are holding their breath.

A new survey found that predominantly low-income families with school-age children in Boyle Heights, South Los Angeles and Watts struggled to get computers and adequate internet access — throughout the spring semester. That’s a problem, since both are fundamental components of distance learning. Only about one-third of families were able to make investments in support of online learning. The survey, conducted by researchers from USC and the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, also found that a majority of families experienced a loss of income and food insecurity during the pandemic, a reminder of how poverty has exacerbated the toll of the pandemic.

Here’s another example of the inequities wrought by distance learning: Families with means have paid for their children to attend in-person enrichment classes at schools that have been closed by the pandemic but allowed to rebrand as day camps or rent space to operators like the YMCA. Day camps are virtually unregulated in California, and almost nothing precludes students from learning in classrooms the county has deemed unsafe for school — nothing but the price, which can range from $200 a week to several thousand a month. “There’s a part of me that feels like we’re getting away with something,” one parent said.

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 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or L.A. County’s hotline at 1-800-978-3600. Here are more ways to get help.

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Around the nation and the world

There’s been much discussion about the plight of restaurant and bar owners as they struggle to remain solvent during the pandemic. Now, it seems, hotels are facing a similar existential threat, with some industry officials predicting a major wave of hotel closures in the cards. Among the victims are a luxury hotel on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and the 44-story Hilton Times Square hotel in New York City. Without the Paycheck Protection Program, the casualties would have been worse, according to one commercial real estate expert.

As coronavirus infection numbers surge again in much of Europe, Sweden is reporting some of the lowest numbers of new cases. It never imposed a stringent lockdown during the pandemic, a move that drew worldwide attention as the country experienced a higher per-capita death rate than its neighbors. Now Sweden is bucking trends again with its lack of a “second wave.” Officials with the World Health Organization are eager to share whatever lessons Sweden has to offer — once researchers can figure out what they are. One notable policy: Swedish health officials don’t recommend that its citizens wear masks, saying they give people a false sense of security and cause people to be lax about social distancing.

“Succession,” “Watchmen” and “Schitt’s Creek” were the major winners Sunday at the 72nd Emmy Awards, but the ceremony itself was arguably the biggest story. It was the first of the major industry awards shows to contend with the complicated logistics of a remotely produced live broadcast, and the three-hour socially distanced telecast replaced the usual glamorous awards show trappings with a sense of intimacy. Host Jimmy Kimmel embraced the elephant in the virtual room, telling the audience, “What’s happening tonight is not important. It’s not going to stop COVID. It’s not going to put out the fires, but it’s fun. And right now we need fun.”

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from a reader who plans to dog-sit for his son’s Labrador retriever and wants to know: Can you get COVID-19 from dogs? The reader explains that he and his wife are seniors with preexisting health problems, and they want to know if there’s anything they can do to mitigate their risk.

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The good news is that when it comes to the coronavirus, there’s nothing special you need to do to protect yourself from a dog. Although there have been a few reported cases of animals becoming infected with the coronavirus, experts think it’s the pets who caught the virus from humans, not the other way around. So far, there is no evidence that pets can transmit the virus to people.

Since pets may be able to catch the virus from humans, you should avoid contact with your son’s Labrador if you develop COVID-19 symptoms or test positive for the virus. “Treat pets as you would other human family members,” the CDC says. “If a person inside the household becomes sick, isolate that person from everyone else, including pets.”

Otherwise, you can follow a normal routine in caring for a dog, including playing games and taking walks. “It may also decrease your anxiety level by making you think of something other than what’s on the news,” Dr. Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer for the American Kennel Club, told my colleague Seema Mehta when she looked into this question early in the pandemic. “It can be a win-win situation for both of you.”

As always, for general health, wash your hands after petting the dog. And these days, when on walks, steer clear of other people’s pets, Julie Castle, chief executive of the nation’s largest animal sanctuary, told my colleague Anh Do for her story on how to keep dogs safe. “When you’re walking, keep your distance as you would with humans and refrain from petting other dogs.”

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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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