Local fallout of the coronavirus scare includes university closures, panic buying and the possible infection of an overseas traveler
By Gary Walker
LOCAL UPDATE (3/12/20): Santa Monica public schools will close for cleaning on Friday and Monday while officials investigate higher-than-usual absences in the wake of a community member with children in the school system testing positive for coronavirus, according to a letter sent to parents. Santa Monica College announced Wednesday it is moving classes online.
Loyola Marymount University, UCLA and USC are canceling in-person classes and shifting to online instruction for the rest of the month. Airlines are reducing flight capacity out of LAX. Catholic churches have suspended sacramental wine for Holy Communion. Coachella and Stagecoach have been pushed to October. And panic buying has spiraled from a Costco phenomenon into a sudden reality for local markets.
“We’ve really been getting hit on our paper towels, tissues and toilet paper. You could lie down on our toilet paper shelf right now, it’s that empty,” Brian Alvarado, store manager for Bob’s Market in Santa Monica, tells The Argonaut. He’s been tripling orders for hand sanitizer and bottled water, which along with canned food and rubbing alcohol have been flying off
COVID-19, more widely known as the novel coronavirus, is believed to have infected more than 100,000 people and killed 4,000 people around the world, including nearly 1,000 cases and 32 deaths in the United States as of Tuesday night, according to CBS News.
A Cedars-Sinai Medical Center study released this week estimates that as many as 9,000 Americans could be infected, based on modeling of cases “imported” from Wuhan, China, prior to that city’s Jan. 23 lockdown. “This suggests the opportunity window to contain the epidemic of COVID-19 in its early stage is closing,” the report states.
Dr. Loren Miller, an infectious disease specialist with UCLA Medical Center and an investigator with The Lundquist Institute, said precautionary measures being implemented by public agencies and intense medical research being done at public health agencies are encouraging, but coronavirus “has all the hallmarks” of a pandemic.
“Most health departments are very aware of the situation. The capacity for testing today that they didn’t have on Friday has increased,” he said. “What scares me is that it’s fairly transmittable, and slightly more so than influenza.”
20 LOCAL CASES
The number of documented COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles County reached 20 — including two LAX screeners — as of Tuesday evening, according to public health officials. “We will continue to see more cases of COVID-19,” Los Angeles County Director of Public Health Dr. Barbara Ferrer stated in a March 6 advisory.
Last week the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors asked the federal government for $750 million for coronavirus testing supplies. On Feb. 28, Supervisor Janice Hahn stated “the county has one testing kit that can be used for 200 people, but that’s clearly not enough.”
In what could be the first case of coronavirus locally, a Playa del Rey resident took to Twitter last week to say his uncle — a Venice resident — has been diagnosed with the virus and was in self-quarantine after he and five others fell ill during a ski trip in the hard-hit Italian Alps.
“One is in a coma, two are sick, and my uncle has not presented any symptoms as of yet. He self-quarantined and called the health department,” tweeted Scott Bell, a financial planner who has declined to speak further about the matter with members of the press.
Public health officials have not released information in response to Bell’s announcement.
Longtime Playa del Rey resident Jackie Resnick said a friend who was also skiing in Northern Italy has been diagnosed with coronavirus and is in a medically induced coma.
“He was an exceptionally strong, physically fit athlete,” she said, “and now he is in very serious condition with feeding and breathing tubes.”
Neither LMU nor UCLA have documented any COVID-19 cases on their campuses, and three UCLA students who self-quarantined tested negative for the virus.
Citing preventive measures, LMU has suspended in-person classes and moved to online instruction through March 31. Similar cancelations are in effect at USC through March 28 and at UCLA through April 10. Santa Monica College is maintaining regular operations but suspending its SMC Emeritus activities geared toward older adults, who are at greater risk from COVID-19, Superintendent Kathryn E. Jeffery announced Tuesday night.
LMU has restricted all university international travel for students, faculty and staff through April 12, according to a statement by LMU President Timothy Law-Snyder. Those who have recently traveled to high-risk countries are not permitted to return to the LMU campus for 14 days.
The Jesuit university is also following Los Angeles Archdiocese worship guidelines to suspend the sharing of wine for Holy Communion, remove holy water from unfiltered fonts and refrain from shaking hands during offerings of peace.
The LAX Coastal Chamber of Commerce Education Foundation has cancelled Saturday’s annual Rock Roll & Run fundraiser on the LMU campus.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom has announced that K-12 public schools in Northern California, which has the majority of the state’s 157 documented coronavirus infections, would be closing if the virus continues to spread.
On Tuesday the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education declared a state of emergency, giving LAUSD Supt. Austin Beutner the authority to close schools quickly if deemed necessary to prevent the spread of coronavirus. All campuses remained open as of that time, with no known link between any documented infection and L.A. Unified staff or students.
Santa Monica schools also did not have any impending school closures as of Tuesday.
“There is no directive to close schools, as there are no cases of coronavirus in our communities at this time. We have activated our Emergency Operation Center on a small scale on Monday, and we are prepared for any directive by one of these agencies to act responsibly with regard to school closures,” Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District spokeswoman Gail Pinsker said.
UCLA Medical Center’s Dr. Miller would not be surprised to see local school closures if the virus continues to spread.
“I think we’ll absolutely see more school closures,” he said, “and if we see more cases of coronavirus that might be reasonable.”
PUBLIC SPACE PRECAUTIONS
At LAX, where two Transportation Security Administration screeners have been infected, airport officials installed more than 250 additional hand sanitizer stations throughout terminals and is utilizing virus and bacteria-killing disinfectants, with public areas and restrooms being cleaned at least once per hour. LAX has also increased deep cleaning efforts, focusing on “high touch” areas at the airport like handrails, escalators, elevator buttons and restroom doors.
Metro has embarked on an increased sanitation protocol at Union Station, the hub for its light rail trains and some of its buses, said Metro spokesman Dave Sotero.
“We’re strengthening our cleaning regimes at our transportation centers with a ‘high touch’ ration, including on railings and vending machines. We’re also cleaning our trains daily and have increased sweeping and mopping our stations with disinfectant,” Sotero said, adding that buses are going through similar cleaning protocols.
The recently activated temporary homeless housing facility at Pacific Avenue and Main Street in Venice, which has capacity for 100 adults and 54 youth drawn from local homeless encampments, is also on heightened awareness. The city-funded facility is operated by the nonprofits Safe Place for Youth and People Assisting the Homeless.
“We are following guidance provided by the county Department of Public Health and following closely any changes in the guidance as this issue develops,” Safe Place for Youth Executive Director Alison Hurst said.
L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin announced Tuesday night that he will use funds from his office budget to see that handwashing stations are installed at local homeless encampments.
Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica advises against public panic, but does have protocol in place for dealing with any widespread infectious disease outbreak.
“First of all, we’re urging calm and common-sense precautions to avoid contracting the virus,” spokeswoman Patricia Aidem said, adding that a Providence-affiliated hospital successfully treated a coronavirus patient in Washington State.
“We’re following Los Angeles County Department of Public Health guidelines in screening our visitors as a safety precaution,” Aidem said. “We have a tent outside the emergency department for triage should we see a surge in patients, much like we do with other infectious diseases.”
Miller said frequent handwashing and making sure “touch” surfaces remain clean can go a long way to avoid people getting sick, and that progress of the disease will determine if more drastic measures are needed.
“It’s already spreading. The question is how much will it spread. If we are fortunate that it hasn’t gotten to out of hand, we may be able to keep it under control. The situation could look very different in a few days,” he said. “It’s a little challenging to know how many [cases] are out there. In the days and weeks ahead we should know more.
There are still a lot of things that we just don’t know. “
Editor Joe Piasecki contributed to this story.
The World Health Organization Recommends …
• Wash your hands frequently with soap and water
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth
• Wave, nod or bow instead of shaking hands
• Keep at least three feet from anyone coughing or sneezing
• Seek medical care early for a fever, cough and difficulty breathing
• Stay home if you feel unwell