More than 60 additional fatalities due to COVID-19 were reported Wednesday in Los Angeles County, pushing the total over 700, and the county's public health director said testing is being bolstered in skilled nursing facilities, which account for 40% of the county's coronavirus deaths.
Barbara Ferrer, head of the county Department of Public Health, announced 66 more deaths, although three of those were reported Tuesday by officials in Pasadena, which has its own municipal health department. Officials in Long Beach, which also has its own health department, announced three more deaths Wednesday afternoon.
The additional deaths increased the countywide total to 732. The total number of deaths from the coronavirus in Long Beach was 27, while Pasadena's stood at 28.
Of the people who have died, ethnic/race data was available for only 646 people. Of those, 37% were Latinx, 27% white, 18% Asian and 15% black.
Ferrer also announced 1,318 new cases, while Long Beach announced another 25 and Pasadena added two more, increasing the overall total to 16,462.
Those cases include 100 cases among the county's homeless population, including 55 who were residing in shelters. Ferrer noted that the majority of those were attributable to an outbreak at the Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. Authorities said Tuesday that 56 cases have been confirmed at the mission among residents and staff, and one person -- a staff member -- has died.
A total of 275 institutional settings -- including nursing homes, skilled nursing facilities, assisted living facilities, shelters, jails and prisons -- have had at least one case. Those institutions have accounted for a total of 3,115 cases, involving 1,826 residents and 1,289 staff members. There have been 292 deaths in such institutions, the vast majority occurring among residents of skilled nursing facilities. Those institutional deaths represent 40% of the county's total number of fatalities, Ferrer said.
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She said the continuing increase in cases in nursing facilities has led to a stepped-up focus on testing, which will now include all people at the facilities regardless of whether they are showing symptoms. That is a sharp change in policy that previously only called for testing of symptomatic individuals.
"With the new information that's emerging that indicates there are many more people than we thought that are positive for COVID-19 and they're not sick, we have to change our strategies and adjust," Ferrer said. "This is particularly true at all of our institutional settings, particularly at the skilled nursing homes where in the past we have done a lot of our infection-control protocols around an assumption that we needed to worry about people who are symptomatic and test people who are symptomatic and not allow people who were symptomatic and were employees to come into a facility to do their jobs.
"But it turns out that we were wrong, and with new information it has become clear that asymptomatic people are capable of spreading the virus, and this is particularly true in a facility where all of the care for most of the residents happens because employees are bathing people, they're feeding people, they're moving people, they're in extraordinarily close contact with the people who reside there and really making sure those people have what they need every single day."
She said the increased testing will continue for the next few months, and said starting Thursday, five officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be coming to the county to inspect nursing facilities and improve infection-control measures.
Meanwhile, Dr. Christina Ghaly, the county's director of medical services, again stressed the need to maintain stay-at-home and physical distancing measures. She said there has been a leveling-off of cases, but "new infections are not yet decreasing.'' She said modeling indicates that a lifting of physical distancing requirements will likely lead to another spike in cases.
Ghaley said lifting "physical distancing measures very suddenly would negate and reverse all of that progress we've made to date."
She again pointed to predictions that if the stay-at-home orders are lifted, 96% of the county's population will be infected by Aug. 1.
Her comments came as several dozen protesters took part in a car caravan demonstration outside Los Angeles City Hall. Many of the protesters waved American flags and some held signs with slogan such as "Open L.A.," "Open Cali Now" or other messages supporting President Donald Trump.
There were no reports of any violence or arrests associated with the protest.