COVID-19 Update: 2 August 2020

Today we are going to take a hyper-local look at the COVID-19 epidemic by comparing the most recent case data compiled from Los Angeles County and Santa Monica.

What is immediately obvious in the Los Angeles graph is the marked decrease in cases in the most recent week ending 7/30/2020. This is not real! It is undoubtedly due to reporting delays – and based on analysis from prior weeks, we can expect this value to increase by about 25%. This makes the true rate about 23.6 daily cases per 100,000 population – essentially stable from 7/3/2020.

Interestingly, the Santa Monica graph shows a sharp jump for the week ending 7/30/2020, while the week before is quite low. A couple of inconsistencies were noted in the tabulation of Santa Monica data. For instance, on 7/16/2020 the total number of deaths stood at 37. By 7/17 that number has dropped to 35. We are now back at 37. With smaller numbers, we do expect swings in the rates making them somewhat harder to interpret. But data errors are another issue.

The current messaging put forward by the Los Angeles County Health Department’s Dr. Christina Ghaly is “a lower transmission rate is evidence people are heeding the call to change their behavior.” In politics, they call this spin.

While transmission rate (number of individuals infected by each case) is an important metric, County officials should be concentrating on the now apparently stable, but elevated population rate of disease.

Looking at the Los Angeles County data, we see a flat curve of (new) infections throughout the entire month of May. This is directly related to the measures taken at the state level limiting travel outside the home, prohibiting non essential gathering, closing non-essential businesses and allowing only dine-out and curbside pickup.

On Friday June 12th, Los Angeles began reopening protocols for everything from bars and gyms to hair salons and indoor malls. The critical error was that case rates were rising at that point. Instead of waiting for rates to decrease, County officials decided to forge ahead. Loosening restrictions into an environment of accelerating case burden had the predicted effect – an explosion of cases. Case rates in both Los Angeles and Santa Monica have TRIPLED from late May until mid-July.

So, effective July 13, gyms and fitness centers, offices of non-critical sectors, places of worship, personal care services, hair salons, and barbershops, and indoor malls have stopped all indoor operations as ordered by the State of California. Additionally, indoor operations at restaurants, wineries, movie theaters, family entertainment, zoos, museums, and cardrooms remain closed.

So while Dr. Ghaly may technically be correct that the spread of COVID-19 is slowing in our communities, we are left with population prevalence that is 3 fold higher than it was in May.

Some have estimated that 2% of the population in the US is now actively infected with COVID-19. So the next time you are on a walk, out at the store, picking up coffee or dining out – stop and count the number of people you encounter. When you reach 50, one of those people is infected and quite likely infectious.

Our public health officials in Los Angeles have left us in this position. By prioritizing bars and restaurants reopening, they shut down any chance of schools being open in the fall. Case rates need to fall and go fall dramatically before such can even be considered for the spring term. That will take months of concerted effort and, practically, have no realistic chance of occurring. The public is doing their part by social distancing and wearing masks, but our public health officials are not holding up their end.

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