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Coronavirus Today: A tale of two testing lines

Good evening. I’m Amina Khan, and it’s Monday, Oct. 26. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

Today’s L.A. Times features a story about California’s attempt to address the disparities in COVID-19 rates among Black and Latino communities — and how, in teaming up with a tech giant to address those problems, the state managed to highlight the very inequities it sought to erase.

Back in March, officials heralded the launch of an ambitious effort to expand coronavirus testing in California’s poor and underserved communities. The state paid a total of $55 million for Google’s health-focused sister company Verily to develop a digital platform that people could use to screen for symptoms, schedule testing appointments and check their test results.

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Now two of the state’s most populous counties, San Francisco and Alameda, have cut ties with Verily’s testing sites.

What went wrong? There were two primary problems: issues with the privacy of patients’ data and concerns that the money intended to bolster testing capabilities in low-income Black and Latino neighborhoods was instead benefiting higher-income residents elsewhere.

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked disproportionate havoc on the lives of people of color. Gov. Gavin Newsom touted the Verily program as a game-changer. It would “make sure we’re truly testing California broadly defined,” he said, “not just parts of California and those that somehow have the privilege of getting ahead of the line.”

But in June, members of Alameda County’s COVID-19 Racial Disparities Task Force sent a letter to California Secretary of Health Mark Ghaly that raised many concerns about Verily’s protocols.

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For example, people who signed up for a test had to use a Gmail account. Sign-ups were offered only in English and Spanish. And participants were asked to provide sensitive information, including about chronic health conditions such as diabetes, obesity or congestive heart failure — information that could potentially be exposed to third parties.

It didn’t take long for problems to arise. People were suspicious of the Gmail requirement and the requests for personal and health information.

Dr. Noha Aboelata saw some of these problems firsthand. As CEO of Roots Community Health Center in East Oakland, she worked with Verily to establish a walk-up site instead of the standard drive-through model. She set up two lines: one for people who scheduled an appointment with Verily’s online portal; another for everyone else.

The people in the non-Verily line were mostly people of color from the community who had previously visited the Roots clinic. Nearly 13% of them tested positive for the virus.

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The people in the Verily line were often white and came from wealthier ZIP Codes. Many were angry at having to exit their cars to get tested. Just 1.5% of people in this line were positive for the virus.

“They were creating quite a scene, and some were saying, ‘I want to talk to the manager,’” Aboelata recalled. “One of them was saying, ‘This is so Oakland, and I hope you all get the virus.’ It was pretty awful.

Aboelata asked Verily to leave after less than a week of testing. She called the experience “an old story.”

“Corporations that are not really invested in the community come helicoptering in, bearing gifts, but what they’re taking away is much more valuable,” she said, referring to the value of the data that Verily requests from people who sign up for a test.

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The program also turned out to be frustrating for homeless people and others in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, which remains one of the city’s poorest areas. You can read more of this eye-opening story here.

By the numbers

California cases and deaths as of 7:42 p.m. PDT Monday:

More than 910,900 confirmed cases and more than 17,300 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 what tiers counties have been assigned under the reopening plan based on local coronavirus risk.
A description of the four tiers California uses to determine when counties can let businesses open, based on coronavirus risk

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Across California

On Monday, Los Angeles County hit 300,000 cases and 7,000 deaths — a rise in the count fueled in part by a backlog of previously unreported tests. It’s a stark contrast to the situation in San Francisco, which has become a COVID-19 “success story” even as other cities stumbled in their responses to the pandemic.

As my colleague Maura Dolan explains, life in San Francisco has returned to a semblance of normalcy, with mask-clad pedestrians visiting retail stores and gathering at tables outside restaurants. While it’s still nowhere near the bustling crowds of pre-pandemic times, it’s a far cry from the ghost town atmosphere of a few months prior. Experts say much of the credit goes to the very cautious approach the city has taken, largely avoiding the rush to reopen. But officials aren’t declaring victory yet, fully aware that the virus could strike again at any moment.

The Los Angeles Lakers won their 17th championship this month, and the L.A. Dodgers are one game away from a World Series title. That level of sports success would usually result in fans flooding local hotels, bars and restaurants.

But with the NBA season having played out in a bubble at the Walt Disney World resort in Florida and the World Series taking place in Texas, the pandemic has deprived L.A. of its full share of sports-related business, some business managers told my colleague Hugo Martín. Gone are most watch parties and all championship parades. Economists, however, question how much of a dent the muted season has made in the local economy.

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Need a coronavirus break? Be sure to check out the lineup for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. This week features “Crazy Rich Asians” author Kevin Kwan with his new novel, “Sex and Vanity,” as well as Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Than Nguyen and his 6-year-old son Ellison Nguyen as they discuss their joint venture, a picture book titled “Chicken of the Sea.”

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.

Around the nation and the world

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has not quarantined himself for the recommended 14 days after he was exposed to the coronavirus, and instead kept campaigning. Health policy experts have expressed concern, questioning the White House’s claim that Pence can travel and campaign under federal rules governing essential workers. Campaigning is not an official duty that falls under those guidelines, which are meant to ensure that police, first responders and crucial transportation and food workers can perform jobs that must be done in person.

Helping to maintain the function of the executive branch of government could be considered critical work, but “we’ve always historically separated campaigning from official duties,” said Dr. Thomas Tsai, a health policy specialist at Harvard University.

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Meanwhile, as President Trump downplays the coronavirus pandemic while giving speeches in battleground states, his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, warned of a “dark winter” of disease and death.

States around the country are battling a surge in cases. The Oglala Sioux Tribe’s reservation in South Dakota instituted a lockdown. In Florida, a state health officer urged residents to eschew children’s birthday parties after half the 30 attendees of a sweet 16 gathering contracted the virus. In Idaho, a regional health board voted to repeal a local mask mandate even after hearing how one hospital had reached 99% capacity. And Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is sending medical reinforcements to the El Paso area to deal with a surge of infections there.

A story out of Jerusalem from our special correspondent there looks at the relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the haredim, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious community, and how that relationship may be helping to fuel a massive second wave of coronavirus cases. Netanyahu, whose political survival relies on the support of ultra-Orthodox parties, has largely avoiding cracking down on virus-spreading activities in that community. But that has dire consequences for managing the pandemic, and what to do about them has become the greatest test of his response.

Europe is also dealing with a new wave of coronavirus cases. Infection rates are spiking in Poland, whose President Andrzej Duda has tested positive. In France, a doctor warned that his country has “lost control of the epidemic,” one day after authorities reported more than 52,000 new coronavirus cases. Spain, the first country to pass 1 million confirmed cases, declared a state of emergency Sunday and imposed several restrictions, including a nationwide overnight curfew. In Italy, new restrictions closed gyms, pools and movie theaters. And in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party delayed a decision on its new leader for the second time, due to the climbing caseload.

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In an unusual move, Iran’s health minister gave a speech criticizing his government’s refusal to enforce mask-wearing and other basic health measures. He issued a sharp about-face a day later, saying it was important not to “cause panic for people in vain.” More than 32,000 people have reportedly died in the Middle East’s worst outbreak; a top official said recently that the true number of deaths may be two and a half times higher.

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from readers who want to know: Will I be exposed to the coronavirus if I have a meal with someone at a small table at a restaurant?

That’s certainly a possibility, but there are steps you can take to reduce your risk.

Wearing a mask and staying at least six feet away from other people reduces transmission of the virus, said Dr. Annabelle De St. Maurice, a pediatric infectious disease physician at UCLA Health. So does conducting your activity outdoors, she added.

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The problem with eating with other people is that you typically remove your mask when you’re eating or drinking, which creates an opportunity for spread.

A CDC report last month found that adults who tested positive for the coronavirus were about twice as likely as those who tested negative to say they had dined at a restaurant in the prior two weeks. (This covered any dine-in area designated by the restaurant, including patio seating.)

Some research has found that simply talking — something you’re likely to do at the restaurant — can generate droplets that could potentially aid disease transmission.

If you can’t wear a mask the entire time, De St. Maurice said, keep it on at every moment when you aren’t eating or drinking. Try to ensure that you’re spaced at least six feet apart. Try to sit diagonally rather than facing one another. Make sure your table is appropriately distanced from other people’s tables.

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If you can’t find a large enough table to share with your meal companion, another option would be to get takeout and find a park or public space where you can safely socially distance.

If it’s really essential, for some reason, that you see each other’s faces, you might want to get a clear face covering and eye protection.

“Very [few] things that we do in our day-to-day life are non-zero risk,” she said. The key is to chip away at those risks as best you can. “Most of us still have to interact with others at some point in our daily lives, so I think it’s all about mitigating the risk of infection.”

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.

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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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