Coronavirus Today: The super-spreader superpower


Good evening. I’m Deborah Netburn, and it’s Wednesday, Sept. 30. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

Today, I hope you’ll join me in taking a moment to appreciate the tens of thousands of scientists across the globe who continue to investigate the novel coronavirus, a pathogen that has dramatically reshaped the world in less than a year.

Thanks to their persistence, our collective knowledge of how the virus spreads, how it makes us sick and how to treat it has grown more nuanced. This, in turn, has allowed policymakers and other people to make more thoughtful decisions about how to protect ourselves without having to stay locked in our homes all the time.

Today, my colleague Shashank Bengali reports on the largest study to date of how COVID-19 spreads through communities. It highlights the role of super-spreaders in passing along the virus.

After examining data from 575,071 individuals in India who were tested after coming into contact with one of 84,965 infected people, researchers found that just 8% of the COVID-19 patients accounted for 60% of the new infections. Meanwhile, 70% of the original patients were not linked to any new cases.

What crazy superpower did these super-spreaders have that allowed them to transmit the virus to so many people when most didn’t spread it at all?

This epidemiological study didn’t investigate the biological factors that might have been responsible. Instead, the researchers examined environmental factors.

For example, they tracked down 78 people who had shared a bus or train with one of eight COVID-19 patients and sat within three rows of that person for more than six hours. When health workers visited these contacts at their homes, they found that nearly 80% of them had contracted the coronavirus. By contrast, people who were exposed to patients in lower-risk environments became infected only 1.6% of the time.

“The finding underscores the essential role of super-spreaders in the COVID-19 pandemic: One individual or event, such as in a poorly ventilated indoor space, can trigger a high number of new infections,” Bengali writes.

Other scientists are digging deeper to learn whether some people are especially efficient at spreading the virus, and I’m grateful to them too. For now, I’ll put this information to work by being extra vigilant about avoiding enclosed spaces and reminding myself that when I do want to see people, outdoors is best.

Thank you, science!

By the numbers

California cases and deaths as of 1:37 p.m. PDT Wednesday:

More than 817,400 confirmed cases and more than 15,800 deaths.
(Los Angeles Times Graphics)

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 what tiers counties have been assigned based on their local levels 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

Los Angeles County hit a positive milestone as health officials announced Wednesday that both the positivity rate and hospitalization count have reached their lowest levels since the start of the pandemic. It’s not clear whether it’s because we all wore our masks and kept our distance or if the searing heat and smoky air kept us locked in our homes for the past few weeks — or a combination of both. Whatever the reason, we’ll take it.


Our reward is that shopping malls and nail salons will be able to open for indoor business at limited capacity over the next 10 days, officials said. The county will allow outdoor playgrounds to open as well. More details on how this reopening will work, including specific dates, will come Friday.

Now for some bad news: Economists predict it will take California’s economy more than two years to fully recover from the pandemic’s fallout. And that’s assuming Congress allocates at least $1 trillion in fiscal stimulus by the end of the year and that there is a widely available, effective vaccine in 2021 — two big ifs that are far from certain.

The report comes from UCLA’s Anderson school and was released Wednesday. The authors forecast that California payrolls will drop 7.2% to 16 million jobs by the end of the year — a loss of 1.5 million jobs since the pandemic struck. They also predict the state’s unemployment rate, which had been 3.9% in pre-pandemic February, will average 10.8% for the full year before falling to 8.6% next year and 6.6% in 2022.

Limited in-person classes are set to resume Oct. 12 at San Diego State University. These classes are mostly upper-division and graduate-level courses that require special equipment or have other requirements that prevent them from being taught online, according to the university. The school said 90% of classes will remain online and those students who do attend in-person class will be tested once every 14 days. SDSU put in-person instruction on pause five weeks ago after a coronavirus outbreak hit the campus. So far, more than 1,058 students have tested positive.

Meanwhile, at Cal State Long Beach, the number of coronavirus infections linked to off-campus gatherings was up to 22 as of Tuesday. In-person instruction has been suspended for two weeks, and 328 students were forced to quarantine.

Five grocery stores in Los Angeles and Culver City were hit with citations Wednesday for failing to protect workers’ health and safety and other coronavirus-related problems. Some of the Ralphs and Food 4 Less stores hadn’t installed plexiglass barriers to separate employees from customers. Some had allowed too many customers inside at once, making it impossible to maintain social distancing. Several had shirked their duty to train employees about the basics of coronavirus safety. And two stores had failed to report the deaths of workers who contracted COVID-19, according to California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health.


Finally, a federal judge in Los Angeles has ordered an immediate reduction of the population of the Adelanto immigrant detention center in San Bernardino County due to a coronavirus outbreak. Eighty-one of the 784 immigrants detained in the facility have tested positive, including nine who got so sick they had to be hospitalized. The judge said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement must file a population reduction plan by Monday that halts the intake of any more detainees and makes sure everyone at the facility — both detainees and staff — has masks and is able to maintain at least 6 feet of social distance at all times.


— 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.

Around the nation and the world

Tuesday night’s raucous presidential debate featured more shouting than substance, but Democratic nominee Joe Biden at least tried to discuss the federal response to the pandemic. Biden accused President Trump of downplaying the threat posed by the coronavirus in the early days of the outbreak and then failing to come up with a comprehensive plan for addressing it despite recognizing that it was “deadly.” And indeed it is — more than 205,000 Americans had died of COVID-19 when the candidates stepped onto the debate stage in Cleveland.

Trump countered by insisting that blame for the pandemic lay with China, where the virus originated, and that if Biden had been in charge, “millions of people would have died, not 200,000,” though he didn’t explain why. Both Biden and moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News brought up Trump’s penchant for holding large campaign rallies indoors, which goes against the advice of his administration’s own health experts. “He’s been totally irresponsible,” Biden said. “He’s a fool on this.”

Americans are certainly looking to Washington to help them through the pandemic. That includes James Cameron, Ang Lee, Jordan Peele, Greta Gerwig and dozens of other filmmakers who signed a letter Wednesday urging congressional leaders to help struggling cinemas. Without “specific relief,” roughly two-thirds of the nation’s small and mid-sized theater companies could wind up declaring bankruptcy or shutting down altogether, according to the letter, which was drafted by the Motion Picture Assn., the National Assn. of Theatre Owners and the Directors Guild of America.

From Europe comes a new study that suggests that a certain cluster of genes inherited from Neanderthals may be putting some people at a greater risk of being hospitalized if they are sick with COVID-19.


Scientists have known for a long time that many modern-day humans carry around Neanderthal genes. Early modern humans and Neanderthals have interbred several times over the course of history, and previous studies have found that genes from our extinct relatives still influence our health, including our risks of having a heart attack, developing an eating disorder and suffering from schizophrenia. Now, it looks like you can add serious complications from COVID-19 to that list.

The particular group of genes identified in the new study is found in 16% of the population in Europe and about 50% of the population in South Asia, including 63% of people from Bangladesh. Indeed, studies in the U.K. show that people of Bangladeshi descent have double the risk of dying from COVID-19 compared to the rest of the population. The group of genes is not found in people from Africa or East Asia, the study authors said.

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from Peggy Funkhouser, who wants to know: What are the COVID-19 symptoms to watch for? Fever? High fever? Aches?

This is a great question, especially as we move into flu season. How do you know if you have COVID-19 or if it’s just allergies, a cold or the flu?

If you have a sore throat, start by asking yourself if you feel generally under the weather, said Dr. Daisy Dodd, an infectious-disease specialist for Kaiser Permanente. If you feel fine except for that scratchy throat, then it’s likely due to allergies or environmental factors, she said.

If you are fatigued and achy, but your sore throat lasts just a couple of days, then it’s likely a common cold, Dodd said. However, if your sore throat lasts longer than that and becomes more severe, and you develop even a low-grade fever, then it might be a more serious infection like the flu or COVID-19.

Also notice if you are able to taste and smell. Both COVID-19 and the flu can result in nasal congestion, she said, but only COVID-19 is associated with the loss of smell and taste. (That’s what made actor Jim Parsons of “The Big Bang Theory” and his husband, art director Todd Spiewak, realize they had COVID-19.)


“If I’m doing tele-health with a patient who says, ‘Doc, I have a little fever, I feel fatigued and I can’t smell my food,’ then my number one diagnosis until proven otherwise is COVID,” she said.

One more thing to look for: diarrhea. That’s associated with COVID, but generally not with influenza.

And finally, when in doubt, it never hurts to call your doctor, Dodd said.

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.