A California county takes unusual step to slow coronavirus spread; state braces for jump in cases

Tribune Content Agency

LOS ANGELES — Concerned about the rise of coronavirus cases, Riverside County has taken the unprecedented step of ordering all residents to cover their faces when leaving home, marking a dramatic escalation by county officials in their attempts to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Despite previous pleas from county officials for residents to socially distance, cover their faces and stay home, “more and more” residents were getting infected with the virus, and “not everyone’s getting the message,” Dr. Cameron Kaiser, the county’s public health officer, said Saturday in issuing the order.

“We change from saying that you should to saying that you must,” Kaiser said in a prepared statement published by the county. As of Saturday, Riverside County has reported 665 confirmed cases of the coronavirus infection, while 18 people have died from COVID-19, officials said.

Los Angeles and the Bay Area had previously urged residents to cover their mouths and noses, and San Diego County on Saturday ordered all essential workers to do the same, part of a broader effort among local governments and the state to flatten the curve of the pandemic before hospitals become overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

But Riverside County’s new mandate is far more strict, requiring anyone who leaves the house to cover up.

The order also bans all gatherings of people except for family members residing in the same home, according to the county’s news release. The sharply worded news release said that police officers have the power to enforce the orders “as they deem necessary.”

“We have already lost two of our deputies to this virus. I am asking all of you to honor them by staying at home,” said Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco.

Surgeon General Jerome Adams on Sunday also urged Americans to follow social-distancing guidelines and to wear face coverings in public to help slow the spread of the sometimes deadly virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week called on Americans to wear masks in crowded public places, but President Trump said Friday: “I don’t see it for myself.”

“The president is making a choice that is appropriate for him,” said the surgeon general on “Fox News Sunday.” Adams has released a video showing how to make a simple homemade face covering with fabric and rubber bands. Wearing a mask, he cautioned, is not a substitute for social distancing.

Adams also deflected questions about the need for a nationwide stay-at-home order. Trump has said he prefers to leave the decision to governors, nine of whom have not issued such a directive in their states.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease specialist, said last week he did not understand why there was no nationwide stay-at-home order. Adams said in the Fox interview that the federal government’s guidelines, which are voluntary, were “essentially” a national order.

“Over 90% of the country is staying home,” he said.

Adams said the coming week is going to be “the hardest and saddest of most Americans’ lives,” likening the projected toll of COVID-19 to “our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment.”

More than 310,000 cases of the coronavirus illness have been reported nationwide, and the death toll is nearing 8,500.

Coronavirus-related deaths across California have soared past 300, with Los Angeles County on Saturday reporting its largest single-day rise in fatalities, as officials worked to improve testing and keep people inside to slow the spread of the virus.

The county announced 28 additional deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, as officials warned again that they are preparing for several tough weeks ahead. It also reported 711 new cases, bringing the total to more than 5,300, with 119 deaths.

“Unfortunately, today’s significant increase in the number of people who have died leaves so many families in our communities facing unimaginable loss and grief,” said Barbara Ferrer, director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

Of the people who died, 17 were older than 65, and 21 had underlying health conditions, officials said.

Orange County reported an additional coronavirus death Saturday and 75 new cases, for a total of 14 deaths and 786 recorded cases. Of those diagnosed, 112 were hospitalized and 71 were in intensive care units, officials said.

California has recorded more than 13,000 cases overall, and officials believe those numbers will sharply rise as testing continues to expand.

In a Saturday news conference, Gov. Gavin Newsom said California will significantly increase coronavirus testing capabilities, adding that he is responsible for testing lapses in the state that have made it difficult to track the sometimes-deadly virus.

Newsom announced a task force that he said will work toward a fivefold increase in daily testing in the state by identifying supply shortages and adding testing locations.

“We are now in a position where I can confidently say it’s a new day,” he said.

The announcement comes as California continues to see dramatic increases in people hospitalized with the virus, with 2,300 patients in the state. An additional 3,267 people hospitalized are suspected of having COVID-19 but are awaiting test results.

From Friday night to Saturday morning, the number of coronavirus patients in California’s ICU beds rose nearly 11% to 1,008 people.

In all, Newsom said 126,700 people have been tested in California, a state of about 40 million people. Of those who have been tested, 13,000 are awaiting results.

“The testing space has been a challenging one for us, and I own that,” he said. “And I have a responsibility as your governor to do better and do more testing in the state.”

Public health experts have said widespread testing is crucial to the state’s efforts to accurately assess how many people are infected and where the virus is spreading.

Newsom said he is confident the newly announced task force, made up of private and public leaders, will deal with testing challenges in the state.

He said the state is partnering with universities, hospitals, labs and testing companies to increase testing locations across the state, reduce backlogs and ensure there are more accurate and timely data on the number of coronavirus cases.

The task force will be led by Paul Markovich, president and chief executive of Blue Shield of California, and Dr. Charity Dean, assistant director of the California Department of Public Health.

State officials have been working to add more hospital and ICU beds to handle the expected surge in coronavirus patients. The state’s modeling suggests California will need 50,000 new hospital beds by mid-May. To meet that demand, the state is asking for recently retired medical providers, those with licenses from other states and medical school students to join the newly created California Health Corps.

Newsom said that a “staggering number of individuals” — some 79,000 people — have signed up through the state’s Health Corps website.

Meanwhile, a crackdown on coronavirus-order scofflaws has escalated in recent days, with nonessential businesses that refuse to shut down, as well as people who defy orders to stay out of the water, finding themselves in the crosshairs.

Los Angeles prosecutors on Friday filed criminal charges against two smoke shops, a shoe store and a discount electronics retailer, accusing them of refusing to shut down despite orders imposed to fight the coronavirus. It marked the first time the city has filed charges for violations of the “Safer at Home” order, which requires businesses deemed nonessential to close their doors to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

City Atty. Mike Feuer on Friday said the four stores were deemed nonessential businesses under Mayor Eric Garcetti’s executive order.

Garcetti said the stores were putting lives at risk. At one store, police officers were told, “ ‘Forget you’ — probably not in as nice words — ‘We’re not going to do it,’ ” the mayor said.

Meanwhile, a plan to house homeless people with the coronavirus in a hotel near a gated Orange County retirement community has sparked outrage among some of its neighbors.

County officials recently entered into an agreement to use two boutique Ayres hotels as temporary housing for those without shelter amid the coronavirus pandemic. One hotel is just outside Laguna Woods Village, a community with thousands of residents older than 55.

County officials say they have few options as they try to quickly move people indoors amid fears that an outbreak among the homeless population could further strain health systems. They say the facility will be locked down, with patients unable to have visitors or leave freely.

Residents of the retirement community, where the average age is about 78, say they fear having homeless patients or the staff who care for the sick nearby because the community residents’ age puts them at high risk of death from the virus.

On Saturday afternoon, dozens of residents gathered outside the hotel at times shouting, “Don’t kill us,” while others circled nearby in their cars, honking their horns.

Laguna Woods city officials have said they are deeply concerned by the county’s decision and are exploring legal action.

One Riverside County official noted that for Christians, Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, the week preceding Easter, and that this was a good time to show their love for their neighbors by practicing social distancing and by staying home.

“Palm Sunday, Passover and Easter are sacred days. The best way to practice our love for God is loving our fellow neighbor. That means staying home and observing the holidays at home,” said county Board of Supervisors Chairman V. Manuel Perez.

Wigglesworth, Elmahrek and Esquivel reported from Los Angeles, Gutierrez reported from Sacramento and King reported from Washington.


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