Photo by Kit Karzen.

After a second spike of coronavirus cases in late June and July brought average rates of around 3,000 new cases a day, the rate began to slow last week to around 2,500 to 2,700 new cases a day.

“We are cautiously optimistic that we’re getting back on track to slowing the spread of COVID-19,” said County Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer during a Monday briefing. “We hope because we are seeing the number of people hospitalized stabilize, we’ll start to see fewer people passing away.”

Ferrer attributed the decreasing case rate to the closure of bars, indoor dining and indoor operations of many businesses, alongside people’s continued commitment to social distancing and wearing masks in public.

“A few months ago when we collectively and successfully flattened the curve and reopened many of our key businesses and community sectors, a lot of us decided that meant we could resume life as we knew it before the pandemic hit. We simply can’t do this again,” said Ferrer. “First and foremost, we need to slow the spread of COVID-19 because that’s what protects our hospital system from being overwhelmed.”

Ferrer said the next set of critical goals for L.A. County is to get people back to work, as the current unemployment rate hovers around 21 percent, and to reopen schools for classroom instruction. For schools to reopen the county must be removed from the state monitoring list, which requires a case rate below 100 cases per 100,000 people. With a current rate of around 355 cases per 100,000 people, the county still has a ways to go, but it has made progress from last week’s rate of 400 cases per 100,000 people, she said.

As of Aug. 3 the total number of reported cases in L.A. County was 293,788, which includes 8,285 cases reported in Long Beach and 2,004 cases reported in Pasadena.

The total number of deaths reached 4,702 with 92 percent of deaths coming from people with underlying health conditions. Of the 4,397 people who passed away and whose race has been identified, 48 percent are Latinx, 25 percent are White, 15 percent are Asian, 11 percent are Black, and less than 1 percent are Native American or Pacific Islander.

In an effort to confront racial disparities and increases in case numbers, L.A. County has expanded its testing capacities and opened new sites in high-need areas. The county will now have the capacity to test 55,000 residents a week, which is an increase from the previous capacity of 40,000 test slots. More than 1.7 million people have been tested so far with a positive test rate of 10%.

“We are focused and committed to reducing the disparities of COVID-related illness across our communities of color and these additional sites are an important step, among broader efforts, to expand access to testing and halt the spread of this disease,” said County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas in a press release. “While this virus doesn’t discriminate, many of our vulnerable communities are bearing a heavier burden. We will continue to take every step necessary to address the underlying economic and other factors driving this epidemic.”

The county has also increased its contact tracing efforts. Since April contact tracers have contacted nearly 152,000 people who tested positive for coronavirus and identified more than 82,000 of their close contacts. This has led to the issuing of nearly 193,000 quarantine orders for those who have contracted coronavirus or been exposed to it.

“This has undoubtedly saved lives and it has prevented the spread of the virus,” said Ferrer. “But, contract tracing during these times here in our county and across the United States remains challenging. People are fearful of sharing personal and health information, because they worry about losing their relationships, their livelihood and their homes.”

In 32 percent of cases contact tracers are either unable to locate the person or the person refuses to be interviewed. So, in order to incentivize more people to cooperate, contact tracers will begin offering a $20 gift card to those who complete the interview process.