LA City Hall Has A Rodent Problem. Downtown Has A Typhus Outbreak. Here Are The Facts

Los Angeles city officials are considering removing and replacing all the carpets in the Civic Center complex after a rodent infestation was discovered last year. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

This is not a metaphor: rats have invaded Los Angeles City Hall.

In Nov. 2018, City Council President Herb Wesson's District 10 staff discovered a rat problem at their City Hall office. Pest control experts were called to set traps at the time.

"Within two weeks, my office was also experiencing fleas in the carpets from the rodent issue, and moved promptly to remove all carpets in the office and stain the underlying concrete as the floor replacement," Wesson wrote in a motion filed in the first week of February. Staff had to temporarily relocate to the district office while that work was being done.

The District 10 councilman has now called for city staff to report on pest control issues at City Hall and City Hall East. He requested an audit to find out what it would cost to remove and replace all the carpeting in both buildings.

In his motion, Wesson suspects the demolition of the nearby Parker Center "along with ongoing cleanup issues near the Civic Center complex" are behind the rodent infestation.

That November rodent revelation came a month after county health officials announced a flea-borne typhus outbreak in downtown L.A. following the discovery of a cluster of nine cases in a three-month period. Typhus is a bacterial infection spread by infected fleas from small mammals, and is treatable with antibiotics.

Mayor Eric Garcetti addressed both issues in a Twitter thread Friday, saying City Hall has a rodent problem, but that it's separate from the typhus outbreak.

That conclusion isn't shared by everyone at City Hall, including District 15 City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who tweeted this note last week:

District 15 spokesman Branimir Kvartuc confirmed to LAist that Buscaino disagrees with the mayor on the connection, saying you don't have to look further than unsanitary conditions on downtown streets to understand.

"We're dealing with a medieval disease," Kvartuc said. "Of course we know where it's coming from."

Wesson mentions typhus in his motion about the rodent infestation, citing a report by NBC4, in which a deputy city attorney said she was diagnosed with typhus in November and believes she was bit by infected fleas while working at City Hall East.

The TV news headline claimed a worsening "typhus epidemic" in Los Angeles, though the L.A. County Department of Public Health confirmed no new cases have been reported in the downtown area this year. Nor have they ever used the word "epidemic," though the agency's disease control division clarified that there is "no real difference between the terms outbreak and epidemic."

Confused yet? You're not alone. Given the nuance around how the disease is classified, how it spreads and all the agencies involved, here's some context and background on how a very old illness is making headline news in recent months.

149 CASES IN LA COUNTY LAST YEAR

While the number of cases reported in L.A. County spiked in 2018, county health officials say that typhus is "endemic and found all over" the region. That means it can be found pretty much anywhere if you look hard enough, but it doesn't mean people are widely getting infected. Only a fraction of a fraction of a percent of county residents contract typhus each year.

Last year, 149 cases were reported countywide, including 19 in downtown Los Angeles. One-hundred and seven cases were counted by the L.A. County Department of Public Health. The remaining were handled by the cities of Pasadena and Long Beach, which operate their own health departments.

County health officials declared "outbreaks" in downtown L.A., and in unincorporated Willowbrook because of clusters of cases found there. In 2017, the health department documented 67 cases of flea-borne typhus. No outbreaks were declared that year.

(Courtesy Los Angeles County Department of Public Health)

So far in 2019, the health department says there have been two cases of typhus reported, but both were away from downtown L.A. and Willowbrook areas.

Last year, Pasadena's health department said typhus reached "epidemic levels" with 22 cases reported, "well above the expected one to five cases per year." But a city health department official clarified to LAist that while the level of cases was "more than what we would expect year-to-year," no outbreak or epidemic was declared in Pasadena in 2018. No new cases have been reported so far this year.

The city of Long Beach also saw a rise in cases last year, but not to a level that could be called an outbreak, according to Emily Holman, emerging infectious disease response coordinator with the Long Beach Health Department.

Holman said while it was an "unusual year," the 20 confirmed cases were spread out over the city, with no clusters or outbreaks among the homeless population.

"Our cases have not been localized in that sense," she said, adding that typhus has only fairly recently been diagnosed in Long Beach, with the first cases reported in 2006.

It's still so new and rare that some health care providers don't know how to test for it, Holman said.

WHAT DOES TYPHUS HAVE TO DO WITH HOMELESSNESS?

(Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

County health officials said homeless people contracted eight of the 19 cases reported in downtown L.A. last year.

After the outbreak declarations in October, the Los Angeles Times reported on a so-called "typhus zone" in downtown where the city and county would deploy more sanitation resources. The boundary spelled out in the Times is virtually identical to the boundary of Skid Row, as defined by federal courts.

The timing was suspicious to some homeless advocates, who argued the danger of typhus in Skid Row had been played up to get around a restraining order preventing officials from seizing people's property in the neighborhood.

Then, in an early February press release, health department officials wrote that there are no so-called "typhus zones" anywhere in Los Angeles County.

"While clusters of cases have occurred in downtown Los Angeles and Willowbrook, there are no areas designated as 'typhus zones' as all areas of Los Angeles County are at risk," officials wrote.

So where did the scary sounding phrase "typhus zone" come from? A city spokesperson said that after declaring the outbreak downtown, county health officials had "defined an area as high risk for typhus where the city of Los Angeles would add resources."

"The term 'typhus zone' is not an official designation," the spokesperson told LAist. "It was only used as an internal planning tool to describe the defined area for operational purposes."

It's simple really: there is no official "typhus zone," but the city and county mapped out an area deemed at high risk for typhus and that "typhus zone" was used to plan cleaning operations. But it's not official. Got it?

The area mapped out has almost exactly the same boundaries as Skid Row, coincidentally where there's a federal injunction against L.A. seizing homeless people's property.

A spokesperson for the mayor's office said that since the outbreak was declared, the city's sanitation efforts on Skid Row have included:

  • 80 more trash cans placed in the affected area, with trash collected twice daily
  • Continued to do comprehensive cleanings on every street throughout the area, including street sweeping
  • 427 rodent burrows and 343 tree wells dusted, and 90 burrows filled
(Photo by James Gathany/Courtesy of CDC/Ken Gage)

SO, WHAT'S THE ACTUAL THREAT LEVEL?

Just under 150 cases were reported last year in a county where more than 10 million people live, so the chances of contracting it are slimmer than slim. That said, the disease is linked to unsanitary conditions, vermin infestations, a lack of flea control (and, depending which city official you ask, L.A. City Hall).

Holman, the Long Beach health worker, says typhus can be found in lots of places, not just dirty city streets. In Long Beach, one case was traced to a golf course with an opossum problem. Another happened at a home where a dead racoon sent fleas searching for fresh blood.

Pets and other animals don't get sick from flea-borne typhus, but the human symptoms include rash, high fever, chills and headache. The disease is not transmitted person-to-person and is fatal in less than one percent of cases, according to health officials.

At L.A. City Hall, Wesson's motion instructs the Department of General Services to report back on the severity of the vermin and pest issues. The council is expecting their first update Friday.

Housing and homelessness reporter Matt Tinoco contributed to this story.