Los Angeles COVID Crisis—Enforce Mask and Social Distancing Mandates, Now

HEALTH POLITICS--The saying “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” reflects our current response to the COVID-19 surge disaster. 

Daily updates show the uncontrolled situation getting rapidly worse but we only ask people to follow the same health orders already in place for ten months. 

Widespread non-compliance is driving this unimaginable spread and there is no sign of slowing anytime soon.  People who are alive and well right now, today, have a disastrously high risk of becoming infected – or dying – by Valentine’s Day.

So, unless we ARE insane, we must change course immediately and dramatically.

What are we waiting for? 

Hospitals are beyond overwhelmed and soon may be rationing critical care only to those most likely to survive.  LA County’s public hospitals are about to launch a team of triage officers who will decide which patients will get continued treatment and which should simply be allowed to die untreated because they are less likely to survive, given only comfort measures because of a lack of resources.

Oxygen and beds are running out.  Our frontline medical workers are exhausted, frustrated, and becoming infected at an alarming rate. We risk running out of personnel to care for the patients even if we find beds.

And there are so many people dying from COVID – more than 200 a day for six of the past nine days with a record 318 in one day on January 8th – that we’ve run out of space at hospital morgues.   When hospitals and private mortuaries are relying on freezer trucks to store bodies, we’ve reached the worst-case scenario.

Every 48 hours COVID-19 kills more people than motor vehicles in LA County in a year; one in three students are testing positive at some schools while one in five adults test positive overall.  Our normal lives – jobs, economy, public safety, education and family – cannot begin to recover unless the pandemic is under control.

The time for voluntary compliance or warnings is over. 

The legal definition of “negligent homicide” is the killing of another person through gross negligence.

People flouting LA County Public Health Officer Orders by throwing or attending big parties or other types of gatherings – not social distancing and not wearing masks – are doing just this. 

We must end reckless and dangerous actions by strongly enforcing mask and social distancing ordinances. 

New York City has dramatically reduced its spread since April through mask enforcement. Current NYC hospitalizations average around 250 per day with about 50 deaths – compared to Friday’s LA County totals of 8000 hospitalizations and 242 deaths.

Local cities like West Hollywood and Beverly Hills are succeeding with mask ordinances and reporting overall positive feedback from the public for their efforts.

Widespread testing may functionally – and tragically – increase viral transmission because people misuse a negative test as a license to party.  All test sites should have signage and handouts warning that a person with a negative test may still have active infection.

To repeat: you may be contagious with a negative test. You may infect partygoers, who in turn may infect a high-risk grandparent, family member, friend or co-worker.  The test is a ‘snapshot’ in time; taken too early it may not detect virus that is present in small, highly-infectious amounts.

Testing is useful to identify active infection but it is not perfect and does not replace health safety measures like masking and social distancing.

To stop the surge, we must halt all gatherings and require off-site or remote work where possible. These rules should apply to all -- no sacred cows –those still throwing opulent parties, protesters not wearing masks, people playing sports in parks, and all other public gatherings. Cite them all, hand out tickets and shut them down.

Masks should not only be required on public transportation in order to protect bus and train drivers and vulnerable passengers, but non-compliant passengers should be refused entry and possibly cited.

We have not yet hit bottom in the COVID-19 crisis, but we are certainly in free-fall. We have parachutes at our disposal. We must use them immediately.

There is no “later.”  Enforce masking and social distancing – now.

(Francine Hanberg is a Yale-Stanford-UCLA-trained practicing Infectious Disease Specialist in Burbank. Her science background includes HIV publications and work in laboratories of three Nobel laureates, including James Watson, (The Double Helix). 

Paul Koretz is a member of the City Council, representing 250,000 people in the 5th District of Los Angeles.)