Coronavirus Today: An app to gauge your risks

Good evening. I’m Kelcie Pegher, and it’s Wednesday, Oct. 14. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

I’ve spent most of my pandemic time anxious about which kinds of activities felt safe and which did not. The weekly hikes I’ve done with two friends for years have been a saving grace for both my mental and physical health — and masked up and distanced, we’ve been able to keep up our tradition. But when I’m considering whether to see people who are at higher risk of serious illness or whether to participate in an activity indoors, it can feel like crossing a rickety bridge.

Drs. Megan Ranney and Elizabeth Goldberg, both emergency physicians and researchers with the Brown-Lifespan Center for Digital Health, have been looking to answer those sorts of questions. Using modeling based on a variety of papers published as recently as this month, they have created an app that approximates risk of infection based on a number of factors — such as how long the activity will last, how big the gathering is, how many people will wear masks and the ZIP Code of the activity. (Their FAQ answers some of the nitty-gritty details about their methodology.)

“What we wanted to do was help people directly visualize how their behavior can directly impact their risk of contracting the virus,” Goldberg said.

With a vaccine for COVID-19 still a ways off, there are ways to minimize risks with these activities to make them safer too, and the app encourages just that. After measuring an activity’s risk, it offers the opportunity to lower that risk — for instance, by adjusting the number of people who will be wearing masks, or by moving the activity outdoors.

Ranney and Goldberg hope to translate the app into other languages, particularly Spanish, because the pandemic’s effects have been especially severe in Latino communities, and also hope it can be adopted by government agencies and larger companies. (Ranney said she found it shocking and sobering that the two of them had been the ones to create this methodology. “This is not rocket science to do this.”)

This week, before scheduling my usual hike with my friends, I ran it through the app. I sighed in relief when its calculations matched my own: low risk.

My colleague Gustavo Arellano experienced a similar joy when he threw a socially distant outdoor birthday party for his 98-year-old grandmother. A caravan of cousins drove by in a parade, as their matriarch sat on the front steps in her mask.


“She’s had a rough few months isolated from all of us,” said his cousin Maribel Bermejo. “So why not celebrate her? Her health is all of our priority, but that also means to make sure she’s happy.”

By the numbers

California cases and deaths as of 2:24 p.m. PDT Wednesday:

More than 863,400 confirmed cases, up 1,515 today, and 16,700 deaths, up 70 today.
(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 to based on local coronavirus risk.
(Los Angeles Times Graphics )
The tiers to which California counties are assigned based on coronavirus risk level. These determine what can reopen.

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Across California

The coronavirus has started spreading more quickly in Los Angeles County, and new case numbers are expected to pick up soon. The county’s projected transmission rate has risen from 1 to 1.05, according to new modeling from L.A. County Health Services. A rate of 1 means that an individual with the coronavirus infects an average of one other person. With a rate of more than 1, new cases are typically expected to increase.

Tens of millions of dollars in pandemic relief funding was funneled to the operator of a luxury Santa Monica hotel and dozens of other properties. Now eight members of Congress, including four from Southern California, are asking whether the money was properly spent. Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) and her Democratic colleagues want the Small Business Administration to investigate how a hotel conglomerate that owns or operates at least 50 hotels spent as much as $63 million from the Paycheck Protection Program. The hotel company, Columbia Sussex, accepted funding but still laid off thousands of workers.

In Northern California, an evangelical college appears to be the center of a new coronavirus outbreak in Shasta County. The school has recently attracted attention on social media for a video by one of the church leaders, who called masks “worthless” and mocked businesses that enforced face coverings. The Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry is now tied to 274 cases in the county, according to KRCR-TV. Currently, Shasta County has a new-case rate of 19 cases per day per 100,000 people, compared with 6.8 per 100,000 for the state overall — the highest of any county in the state.


— 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

Nearly two weeks after his COVID-19 diagnosis, President Trump probably isn’t infectious, Dr. Anthony Fauci said, after Trump submitted to an independent coronavirus test in order to participate in a televised town hall Thursday. That event, continuing his recent campaigning blitz, sets up dueling town halls between ABC and NBC, as well as between the two candidates, who were supposed to have debated that night. Both Fauci and the clinical director of the National Institutes of Health reviewed Trump’s medical records and said they had a high degree of confidence that he is “not shedding infectious virus.”

Trump’s 14-year-son, Barron, was also among those who tested positive for the coronavirus earlier this month, First Lady Melania Trump revealed Wednesday. He has since tested negative, she said, calling him a “strong teenager” who exhibited no symptoms. The White House initially said Barron had tested negative after both of his parents tested positive; the first lady said Wednesday that subsequent testing showed he had also come down with the virus.

Coronavirus infections are surging again in the northern Italian region where the pandemic first took hold in Europe, renewing pressure on hospitals, and Italy on Wednesday posted its highest daily number of new cases — surpassing the high recorded during the virus’ most deadly phase in March. For the healthcare workers in Lombardy who fought the virus back in the spring, the long-predicted rebound came too soon. “On a psychological level, I have to say I still have not recovered,” nurse Cristina Settembrese said. “I am reliving the nightmare, with the difference that the virus is less lethal.”

Germany is agreeing to pay $662 million in coronavirus aid to Holocaust survivors struggling under the burden of the pandemic. The payments will go to roughly 240,000 survivors around the world, primarily in Israel, North America, the former Soviet Union and Western Europe, over the next two years.

Your questions answered

A number of our readers have written to us wondering: Wouldn’t at-home rapid coronavirus tests help us safely reunite with family for the holidays? Is this possible?

The use of oral instead of nasal swabs in coronavirus tests is already catching on, and at-home saliva tests could be headed for regulatory authorization too.

“There’s tons of interest” in an at-home saliva test that doesn’t require laboratory analysis, Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Stanford University School of Medicine, told California Healthline. “People really do want to get that pregnancy-type kit out there,” she said. “You could basically send people a little packet with little strips, and you pull off a strip every day and put in under your tongue.”

As for what’s out there now? You can get an at-home test, or you can get a rapid test — but you generally can’t get both in a single test.

Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions are now offering at-home saliva tests. Each test costs roughly $140, and after you collect your sample, you send it to a lab with a prepaid next-day shipping envelope. (Just don’t collect the sample on a Friday or Saturday.) Results are delivered by email or text — typically within 72 hours from the time the lab receives the test.

There are faster tests, known as antigen tests, which can give results in as little as 15 minutes. But county health officials say these tests can often miss infections. We have a pretty high-profile example of this: The White House has been relying on a rapid test that has been known to deliver incorrect results.

Some providers are also offering more accurate molecular tests that can yield results within 24 hours or less, though they more often take a few days.

And of course, if a claim about testing sounds too good to be true, it probably is, L.A. County warns in its guidance on common testing scams.

For now, as the holidays near, state officials have offered some guidance for how to keep safe. Among their suggestions: Gather outdoors. Keep gatherings to fewer than three households. Limit any gathering to two hours or less. Wear face masks, except while eating. And resist the urge to shout and sing.

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.