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Newsletter: The search for missing COVID-19 cases

Darryl Ospring at her home in San Jose. After news of COVID-19 deaths in February, Ospring began to wonder if the Jan. 22 death of her mother, Marjorie Waggoner, 98, could also have been caused by the virus.
Darryl Ospring at her home in San Jose. After news of COVID-19 deaths in February, she began to wonder if the Jan. 22 death of her mother, Marjorie Waggoner, 98, could have been caused by the virus.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Tracing the origins of the coronavirus is vital to moving forward. But there’s a catch — several, actually.

TOP STORIES

The Search for Missing COVID-19 Cases

The reported U.S. death toll from COVID-19 is close to 90,000 people, but researchers believe there is a large undercount of fatalities.

Part of that stems from months ago, when the novel coronavirus may have lurked in places like the San Francisco Bay Area for weeks before anyone suspected it had arrived in the United States.

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Efforts to trace the virus backward in time, however, have been frustrated by roadblocks: delays in setting policies for testing the dead, a single national lab able to do that work and a fractionalized coroner system in California that creates large blind spots in the hunt for origins of the pandemic.

The search for missed cases is crucial to discovering the origin of the virus in the U.S. and to understanding its rate of spread and deadliness. It also feeds public policy and politics.

Cases examined by The Times illustrate how easily the virus slips past the medical system, leaving its victims to die at home.

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The Price of Being ‘Essential’

For the people who clean floors, do laundry, serve fast food, pick crops and work in meat plants, having the jobs that keep America running has come with a heavy price. They’re deemed “essential” workers, yet their jobs come with low pay, little to no glory — and now high risk.

Health experts say one of the main reasons Latinos are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 is that many work in such low-paying jobs, which require them to leave home and interact with the public. Along with black people, Latinos have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic in California and other parts of the United States, becoming infected and dying at disproportionately high rates.

Changing With the Times

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With the world turned upside down by the coronavirus, Joe Biden has refashioned his presidential campaign to shift from an emphasis on steadiness and stability to the promise of big, bold change.

Though the fundamentals of Biden’s White House bid remain the same — with a call for such Democratic standbys as expanded healthcare and greater equality — he talks less about restoring things as they were before Trump’s disruptive time in office and more about where the country must head.

In the coming weeks, Biden said, he will lay out his plan for the “right kind of economic recovery.” The forcefully populist messaging could help Biden in two ways: sharpening the contrast with President Trump, who still holds an edge with voters on economic issues, and attracting those progressives who may still be smarting over his defeat of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic nominating contest.

More Top Coronavirus Headlines

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— A vaccine by year’s end is possible, but not something to “bank on,” a leading public health expert warned, as the Trump administration continued to push for swift business reopenings in a bid to revive the battered U.S. economy. In separate, stark warnings, the leaders of Italy and Britain have told their citizens that the world needs to adapt to living with the coronavirus and cannot wait to be saved by the development of a vaccine.

— Taking a thinly veiled swipe at Trump, former President Obama decried racial inequities revealed by the pandemic and told graduating college students that the crisis has “torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they are doing.” Trump responded by calling Obama “grossly incompetent.”

— California’s prisons and jails have emptied thousands into a changed world. Complicating their return are scant job opportunities and the closure of many government offices.

— In cities across Mexico, morgues are full, funeral homes are jammed and crowded hospitals are turning patients away. How many are dying of COVID-19? It’s hard to say.

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— So you really want to see your friends? Here’s how to assess the risk.

For more, sign up for Coronavirus Today, a special edition of The Times’ Health and Science newsletter. As with all our newsletters, it’s free.

A Threat Four Decades in the Making

Forty years ago today, an earthquake shook Mt. St. Helens in Washington, and the mountain’s north face collapsed in one of the largest debris avalanches ever recorded. The slide uncorked the volcano, baring magma that exploded with 500 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb.

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The chain of events killed 57 people and thousands of animals, took out 250 homes, 47 bridges and 185 miles of highway, clogged rivers with sediment, flooded valleys and blocked the Columbia River shipping channel.

The destruction may not be over. U.S. Forest Service officials say debris in Spirit Lake are holding back 73 billion gallons of water. A breach is not thought to be imminent, but if it occurred, the results would be disastrous. Yet there’s disagreement over a plan to get workers and equipment into a remote area to study the scene.

FROM THE ARCHIVES

On this date in 1927, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre had its grand opening on Hollywood Boulevard. Master showman Sid Grauman had built other movie palaces — the Million Dollar Theatre in downtown L.A. and the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood — but this was the culmination of his dreams.

Since then, the theater has had various owners and hosted countless movie premieres. Its Forecourt of the Stars features handprints, footprints and other impressions from celebrities through the decades. In 2017, The Times took a closer look at the secrets in the Grauman’s concrete.

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Commemorating their hit "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," Jane Russell, right, and Marilyn Monroe place their hands in freshly poured concrete outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre in 1953.
(Los Angeles Times)

CALIFORNIA

— A criminal investigation is underway into an explosion in downtown L.A. that injured 12 firefighters and left several buildings damaged, law enforcement sources told The Times. Officials are looking at whether oils stored in a building might have sparked the blast.

— The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a pair of class-action lawsuits on behalf of federal prisoners at Lompoc and Terminal Island, claiming officials mishandled coronavirus outbreaks at the facilities that have infected a combined total of 1,775 inmates, killing 10.

— People from across California and outside the state have been driving hours to visit beauty salons in neighboring Sutter and Yuba counties, which have opened their parlors under local guidance despite a statewide stay-at-home order.

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— Strapped for cash, Angelenos have turned to bartering and sharing things like fruits and vegetables from their gardens.

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NATION-WORLD

— Democrats are demanding that the White House hand over all records related to Trump’s latest firing of a federal watchdog, this time at the State Department, and suggested Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo was responsible, in what “may be an illegal act of retaliation.”

— Weeks after saying he was running for president, Michigan Rep. Justin Amash has ended his bid to seek the Libertarian nomination.

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— In Afghanistan, President Ashraf Ghani and political rival Abdullah Abdullah have signed a power-sharing agreement two months after both declared themselves the winner of September’s presidential election.

— After three deadlocked and divisive elections in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally swore in a new government after he and his rival-turned-partner Benny Gantz announced their appointments.

HOLLYWOOD AND THE ARTS

— Comedian Fred Willard, who died over the weekend at 86, excelled at playing a goofball straight. “He was a secret ingredient, a special sauce, useful in all sorts of occasions and never out of demand,” writes TV critic Robert Lloyd.

Lynn Shelton, the director of “Humpday” and “Sword of Trust,” has died at 54. Film critic Justin Chang examines how she found beauty in human imperfection.

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Mark Ruffalo moved mountains to make HBO’s new Emmy hopeful, the six-part series “I Know This Much Is True.” He rescued it from limbo.

Devo is selling a new twist on its famed red energy-dome hats: They’re now available with an attached clear plastic face protector.

BUSINESS

— The race to resume film production is global: Several countries are touting their incentives, facilities and locations as well as their testing capabilities, safety measures and low COVID-19 numbers.

— Looking for a flexible, high-demand job? Consider teaching online. But don’t expect to get rich.

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SPORTS

— UCLA has hired Martin Jarmond to become the Bruins’ athletic director. He is the first African American in that role in the school’s 101-year history.

— The ESPN docuseries “The Last Dance” has been a walk down memory lane with Michael Jordan. Last night, it came to an end. Here are the 45 most fascinating takeaways from the final episodes.

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OPINION

— The Times’ editorial board says it is past time for Congress to require states to expand opportunities for voting by mail and early voting — and to help pay for those changes — so that Americans on Nov. 3 aren’t faced with a choice between protecting their health and exercising the most important right of citizens in a democracy.

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— Why should food delivery apps thrive, when our restaurants are failing?

WHAT OUR EDITORS ARE READING

— “It just feels like something that didn’t have to happen”: Sen. Elizabeth Warren talks about losing her brother Donald Reed Herring to COVID-19. (The Atlantic)

— With months to live, a high school senior marries his sweetheart. (Indianapolis Star)

ONLY IN L.A.

Despite a prohibition of large gatherings under stay-at-home orders, police say there was a raging house party Saturday night in a rented home in the Hollywood Hills. When officers responded, they found more than 100 people at the site — and heard a single gunshot. Apparently, the party ended when a man accidentally shot himself in the groin. The man was taken to a hospital; police say his injuries were not life-threatening.

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Comments or ideas? Email us at headlines@latimes.com.


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