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Virus’ spread is slowing, county health officials say

LOS ANGELES — The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Los Angeles County topped 40,000 May 20, while results of the latest antibody testing showed a drop in the percentage of residents believed to have been infected at some point, an indication the virus’ spread is slowing.

Health officials warned, however, that there could be an array of explanations for the drop in antibody-positive tests between the first survey in April and the second this month.

The latest survey found 2.1% of the 1,014 adults who were tested had antibodies to COVID-19 in their systems, indicating they had been infected at some point. That was down from about 4.1% in the first round of testing in April, which involved 863 test subjects.

The testing is aimed at painting a broader picture of how widespread coronavirus infections are in the community. Projected across the county’s 10 million residents, a 2.1% infection rate would equate to roughly 210,000 people — far greater than the county’s current number of confirmed cases, which just topped 40,000.

Neeraj Sood, a USC professor of public policy at the USC Price School for Public Policy and lead investigator on the antibody study, noted several changes in methodology between the two rounds of testing, most notably a greater outreach to Spanish- and Mandarin-speaking residents in the May survey, along with changes in testing sites that contributed to different demographics.

The two percentages also fall within a standard margin of error in the testing, officials said. Sood also noted that people who may have been infected early in the pandemic may have “waning” levels of antibodies in their system that were not detected by the testing.

But he said there is reason to be optimistic over the latest testing results.

“What we find is that between the two waves there is no evidence of a big increase in incidence of COVID-19,” Sood said. “This shows that we are controlling the new infections in our community. The results still say, if you pool the results across the two waves, … about 3% tested positive, which means we are still far away from herd immunity, and we need to be conscious of that.”

Barbara Ferrer, director of the county Department of Public Health, echoed that optimistic tone, while also acknowledging that methodology may have contributed to the drop in percentage of antibody-positive tests.

“Despite the limitations, the results suggest there was not much spread in the virus in the general community population during the time between these two surveys and I think this is likely because so many of us did a great job staying at home, physically distancing and wearing our cloth face coverings,” she said.

She noted that the latest testing, like the first round, found that men are more likely to be infected with the virus, as are people in lower-income neighborhoods and people under age 55.

Additional rounds of serology testing are being planned, with officials saying they will be making efforts to include a broader array of the population, while also including people in nursing homes and children.

Ferrer announced 57 more deaths May 20 due to the coronavirus in the county, increasing the county’s total to 1,970.

She also announced another 1,324 cases of COVID-19, raising the county total to 40,857.

In the last four weeks, the county has recorded 1,265 deaths.

Ferrer issued what is likely to be the first of multiple warnings ahead of the Memorial Day weekend that large public gatherings are still barred under the county’s health orders.

“We can enjoy our beaches for active recreation and being sure not to create crowded conditions that don’t allow for physical distancing,” she said. “And we can also enjoy our beautiful weather in our own neighborhoods and our backyards. I want to remind folks that gatherings and events of any kind are not permitted. 

“The virus hasn’t changed. It’s still relatively easy to become infected, particularly if you’re not taking precautions,” Ferrer added. “Unfortunately, there have been recent parties and gatherings that did result in a number of newly infected people. So please find ways to enjoy the holiday with people from your own household or with friends and family from afar using our technology tools. Being together from a distance is currently our new normal.”

The county has been slowly reopening recreational amenities and retail businesses for curbside pickup only. The county’s Economic Resiliency Task Force, which includes members of the Board of Supervisors and local business leaders, met May 19 and set a target date of July 4 for a full or staged reopening of most of the county’s economy.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger said that goal was set following a meeting that included some dire numbers presented by business leaders.

“It was sobering,” she said. “The restaurant industry reported that 80% of jobs have been lost. The entertainment industry indicated that 890,000 film and entertainment employees are not working, which trickles down to many of the small businesses that provide support for this industry.

“Anyone listening to [that] meeting heard loud and clear that employees and businesses are suffering. The economic impacts created by COVID-19 have hurt our most vulnerable populations the most. Prolonged closure means many small businesses may not be able to reopen and will cause permanent job losses for millions throughout this county. I understand the urgency to reopen quickly, but we must do it safely and public health guidance has to [guide] what we do.”

USC professor 

Neeraj Sood

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