Your No-Panic Guide To The Coronavirus In LA
UPDATED: Mar. 12, 2020
If the speed and spread of the coronavirus pandemic has you deeply concerned, please know that we are right there with you.
On Wednesday night, President Trump banned travelers coming from Europe. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, who have been filming in Australia, told the world they have tested positive for the coronavirus. And the NBA suspended the season after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for COVID-19.
All on the same day, the World Health Organization officially declared a pandemic. So, believe us, our heads are spinning too.
One very important way we can all combat fear is to get prepared. That's what we are here to help you do. So here's our promise to you. We will:
- Do our best to bring you the most recent and accurate information
- Explain what's happened so far, using language that we hope you understand (but let us know if we are falling short).
- Continue to update this comprehensive explainer as new information becomes available
- Answer your questions
So here's what we know so far:
THE NITTY GRITTY
A "Public Health Emergency of International Concern" was declared on Jan. 30, 2020 by the World Health Organization over an outbreak of a new, deadly, novel coronavirus which began in Wuhan City, China.
The virus was identified as SARS-CoV-2, which causes a disease called COVID-19 (which is an abbreviation of "coronavirus disease 2019").
On Mar. 4, L.A. County declared a local and public emergency, and Governor Gavin Newsom made the call to declare an emergency for the state of California on the same day.
On Mar. 11, WHO made it official: COVID-19 is a pandemic.
WHAT IS SARS-CoV-2?
SARS-CoV-2 is in the family of coronavirus pathogens that usually cause short-lived illnesses.
They get their name because of how they look, which is spiny around the edges, like a crown. And some coronaviruses are scarier than others. Scientists are still trying to figure out how dangerous this new (or "novel") coronavirus is.
"Most people get infected with these viruses at some point in their lives," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Symptoms may include fever, cough, difficulty breathing, runny nose, and headache. But they can vary in severity. Thousands of people have died, but "other patients have had milder illness and been discharged," the CDC said.
DO I NEED TO BE WORRIED IF I LIVE IN THE L.A. AREA?
The main message from national and local health officials is: don't panic. But L.A. is taking precautions.
County officials declared a local and local public health emergency on March 4. The declaration, in part, was a way to "enhance our ability... to seek future reimbursement from both the state and federal government, should the funding become available," said the Director of L.A. County's Department of Public Health, Barbara Ferrer PhD, MPH, MEd.
L.A. County announced its first death from COVID-19 on March 11 -- a woman over 60 with underlying health conditions who was visiting friends in the area, Ferrer said. She was not a resident, and she had an extensive travel history over the past month, including a long layover in South Korea.
Ferrer said the department was recommending "that people with underlying health conditions, pregnant women, and people who are elderly should adopt some social distancing practices immediately. And this would include avoiding non-essential travel, avoiding public gatherings or places where large groups of people are congregating, and avoiding event venues."
HOW DOES IT SPREAD?
Coronaviruses generally jump from person to person on the droplets from coughs and sneezes.
The CDC's current best guess is that the incubation period for novel coronavirus -- that's the time from exposure to when symptoms first start showing up -- is somewhere between two and 14 days.
Federal health officials are stressing the importance of good hand hygiene.
Locally, the L.A. County Department of Public Health has guidance for travelers, health care workers, school administrators, colleges and universities, employers, parents of young kids, ships, congregate living, faith based organizations and more (and it's also stressing the importance of hand washing).
HOW LONG DOES IT LIVE?
One study -- not yet peer reviewed -- has found that COVID-19 can live up to three hours in the air, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.
That doesn't mean anyone has contracted the coronavirus through breathing it in the air or touching a contaminated surface, scientists involved in the study said.
The research does show that "aerosolized transmission" is "theoretically possible," study leader Neeltje van Doremalen of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told the Associated Press.
A team from the National Institutes of Health, Princeton and UCLA conducted the study. Its findings were published Mar. 9 on a site where researchers can quickly share their work before it's published.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF COVID-19?
Common symptoms can include: low-grade fever, body aches, coughing, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat.
Severe symptoms can include: high fever, severe cough, shortness of breath, persistent chest pain or pressure, confusion, bluish lips or face
These Symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure. However, some people infected with the virus have no symptoms.
And there also may also be additional symptoms to what we've listed above.
WHAT DO I DO IF I THINK I MIGHT HAVE IT?
Doctors are recommending that people who think they might have been exposed, or have COVID-19 symptoms, call their physician first so hospitals can efficiently triage patients and give health care workers time to prepare protective equipment (masks, gowns, gloves).
If you experience severe symptoms, get immediate medical attention.
DO MASKS HELP?
They might. But they're not a for sure way of protecting yourself. The problem is that most surgical masks are loose-fitting and those pesky respiratory droplets can slide through the gaps. Still, some studies have shown that masks and respirators can reduce the risk of infection.
The N95 surgical mask is probably the most effective.
Clorox Multi Surface Cleaner + Bleach is on the list. So is Lysol Brand Clean & Fresh and dozens of other consumer products.
"Coronaviruses are enveloped viruses, meaning they are one of the easiest types of viruses to kill with the appropriate disinfectant product," according to the EPA. "Consumers using these disinfectants on an enveloped emerging virus should follow the directions for use on the product's master label, paying close attention to the contact time for the product on the treated surface (i.e., how long the disinfectant should remain on the surface)."
As far as keeping your hands virus-free, the CDC says hand-washing for at least 20 seconds is still your best bet. If that's not possible, it recommends using an "alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol."
HOW ARE LOCAL HOSPITALS RESPONDING?
Hospitals are preparing for a possible surge of patients and making sure there are areas set aside where people can be quickly isolated.
Those could be "designated rooms where these patients are going to be evaluated so that both the patient and the healthcare worker are safe and they feel safe while doing that," said Dr. Neha Nanda, a medical epidemiologist with USC Health System.
Nanda said ideally, patients would be checked out in negative pressure rooms. Those are rooms that prevent cross contamination. But they aren't always available.
Dr. Nancy Gin with Kaiser Permanente Southern California said facilities that don't have the special rooms might opt to set up temporary isolation units.
"Then you can put up tents, much like you see tents for events or a wedding reception, you can use those same kinds of tents to help to cordon off individuals," Gin said.
WHAT ARE THE OFFICIAL RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PREPPING AT HOME?
Here's what the L.A. County Department of Public Health is recommending:
- Have provisions that will last a few days (water, food, essential hygiene, etc.)
- Get immunized against the flu. This will relieve what could be a highly stressed healthcare system
- Stay home when you're sick (don't wait until you are VERY sick)
- Make sure you are using a robust, regular cleaning schedule for frequently touched surfaces
- Wash your hands frequently
At a press conference on March 4, Ferrer said she was recommending simple "social distancing" measures.
"Use verbal salutations in place of handshakes and hugs," Ferrer said. "Don't share utensils cups and linens. And whenever possible, try to keep six feet between you and other people that you don't know at large events."
It's also a good idea to have ibuprofen or acetaminophen on hand to help with fever. You can read more about what you should have on your shopping list with our guide here.
ARE ALL EVENTS CANCELED IN CALIFORNIA?
Not all, but many (and counting).
Below is the official mandate from Gov. Gavin Newsom's office, and the recommendations from state health officials and Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health, as of Mar. 12 through the end of the month.
Events with 250 or more people should be canceled or postponed.
Smaller events should be canceled or postponed if the venue can't accommodate social distancing.
Avoid gatherings or places where you can't keep a 6-foot distance from other people.
Avoid gatherings or places where there will be 50 or more people.
- Avoid gatherings or places where there will be 10 or more people if you are pregnant, immunocompromised or elderly.
WHAT ARE L.A. EMPLOYEES DOING TO FLATTEN THE CURVE?
City and county leaders announced new rules for themselves at a press conference on March 12. The changes were framed as precautionary steps designed to protect the community and the most vulnerable among us.
New protocols include:
No more than 50 visitors in city buildings at a time
Events and conferences held on city property must have fewer than 50 people.
- Non-essential travel by city and Los Angeles Sheriff's Department employees is canceled
City Hall is closed to all non-city employees
Hand-washing and sanitizing facilities available at all city properties
911 operators will screen callers about COVID-19 exposure to help reduce the risk to first responders
- County Emergency Operations Center is moving to Level 1 (which means it will be fully staffed with leaders and experts from every county department, as well as with outside experts)
THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT THINGS YOU CAN DO TO KEEP PEOPLE SAFE
Stay home if you're sick (or think you might be, even if you only have mild symptoms).
- Wash your hands frequently.
HOW ARE WE HELPING OUR HOMELESS NEIGHBORS WHO ARE SICK?
The county hopes to be able to announce as soon as Friday that it has secured temporary housing for homeless people who have tested positive for COVID-19, as well as for homeless people who need to be quarantined.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN QUARANTINE, ISOLATION, AND SOCIAL DISTANCING
All are actions designed to stop or slow down the spread of a contagious disease. Here's how they differ, according to the CDC and Harvard Health.
- Quarantine: a separation for people who have a contagious disease, have symptoms consistent with a contagious disease, or were exposed to a contagious disease. A person's movements are restricted when they are quarantined.
- Isolation: a less restrictive separation that keeps people who are sick away from sick people who are not sick.
- Self-Isolation: a voluntary action to stay at home by people who are sick (or are likely to be sick) and are experiencing mild symptoms.
- Self-Quarantine: a voluntary action to stay at home by people who may have been exposed but are not experiencing symptoms.
- Social Distancing: keeping your distance from other people. The distance reduces the risk of breathing in droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or in some cases, breathes. It can also mean cancelling events or gatherings.
L.A. County's lab has tested 100 people over the last week and a half, Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health, said on March 12.
There is a significant backlog -- "we're swamped," she said, and encouraged people to use commercial labs that have recently started offering tests.
Commercial labs have tested 120 people so far in the county.
The county is in the process of submitting an application to the Food and Drug Administration for drive-thru testing.
When testing began it took the CDC about four to six hours to test for the coronavirus, but samples had to be shipped to the Atlanta facility -- which could take days. To speed up testing, the agency began shipping COVID-19 testing kits to states with confirmed cases.
Kit results take about 24 hours, and the ability to test quickly is crucial in situations where many people might have been exposed -- for example, if someone went to work infected.
"You could go to that work place and you could test everybody else there to see if they've been infected," said Dr. Timothy Brewer, an epidemiologist at UCLA. Brewer says stepped up testing could lead to more people being placed in isolation. And that could slow the spread of the disease.
The kits utilize a technique called a real-time reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction. It "can diagnose this new coronavirus" in samples from clinical specimens, the CDC's Messonnier said.
IS THIS CORONAVIRUS LIKE SARS OR MERS?
MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) are two members of the coronavirus family that tend to make people sicker. "About 3 or 4 out of every 10 patients reported with MERS have died," according to the CDC. And SARS was responsible for a global outbreak in 2002-2003 that killed 774 people.
"The novel coronavirus is more genetically-related to SARS than MERS," said Dr. Messonnier.
But scientists don't know yet if novel coronavirus will act the same way as SARS or MERS; they're using information from both pathogens to guide their research.
DID NOVEL CORONAVIRUS COME FROM... A BAT?
Dr. Messonnier said the novel coronavirus "does look like it may be somewhat similar to a bat coronavirus." But she said researchers will need to conduct more genetic sequencing before she can be confident of how the virus started.
Some researchers think pangolins might have transmitted the new coronavirus to humans. But we just don't know for sure yet.
WHAT ELSE? SEND US MORE OF YOUR QUESTIONS.
Mar. 5, 2020: This article was updated with the most current information available about COVID-19 and confirmed cases in Los Angeles.
Mar. 9, 2020: This article was updated with Dr. Ferrer's remarks about the first possible case of community transmission.
Mar. 11, 2020 10:55 a.m.: This article was updated to include WHO's pandemic classification, "qualified" disenfectants, and updated case figures.
Mar. 11, 2020, 2:18 p.m.: This article was updated with details about the first related death in Los Angeles County.
Mar. 11, 2020 3:48 p.m.: This article was updated with details from a preliminary report about how long the virus can live.
Mar. 11, 2020 4:40 p.m.: This article was updated with a new section of community questions.
Mar. 12, 2020 6:44 p.m.: This article was updated with information about symptoms, quarantine, homelessness, social distancing, event cancelations, L.A. County announcements, and local testing numbers.
Robert Garrova, Paul Glickman, Lisa Brenner, Megan Erwin, Brian Frank, Megan Garvey, Kyle Stokes, and Adriene Hill contributed to this story.
This article was originally published on January 28, 2020.