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Despite COVID-19 Spread, LA County Health Director Is Cautiously Optimistic


California this week became the first U.S. state to report more than 600,000 coronavirus cases since the pandemic began. The state has also reported more than 10,000 deaths from COVID-19. About half of those fatalities are concentrated in Los Angeles County, which saw a spike in new cases last month. But Dr. Barbara Ferrer, the director of Los Angeles County's public health department, said earlier this week that she's cautiously optimistic about things getting better. Dr. Barbara Ferrer joins us now from Los Angeles County. Welcome.

BARBARA FERRER: Thank you very much for having me.

FADEL: So, Dr. Ferrer, your county this week reached its own somber milestone - 5,000 deaths from COVID since the pandemic began. Yet California was one of the first to issue stay-at-home orders and encourage social distancing. And it worked. Did it surprise you when the numbers spiked last month?

FERRER: We were devastated, I would say, more than surprised. I think one of our issues, you know, all along with the pandemic has been not knowing everything we wished we knew. We had started what we thought was a fairly gradual reopening. But, you know, in hindsight, you look back, and you realize LA County has 10 million residents. When we decided that we could reopen bars, the first night we reopened bars, data indicates from a tracking system that over 500,000 people went to our nightspots. So, you know, in the context of so many people live in such a large county, I don't think we were prepared for the numbers that we would then see in transmission rates.

FADEL: You said earlier this week at a press conference that you were cautiously optimistic now. Are you still? And if so, why?

FERRER: Well, we're cautiously optimistic. I want to give a lot of credit to our elected leaders, our board of supervisors who have been working with us, you know, once we saw this spike to figure out what steps we needed to take as a county, wanted focus on compliance. And some of that meant revisiting some of the sectors that had reopened and moving some things - with orders from the state, moving some activities from inside to outside, closing down our bars, again, moving restaurant dining outside and then really working on compliance across the sectors.

FADEL: Is it harder to get people to comply now than it was at the very beginning of this pandemic, when it felt like a lot of people were willing to make the sacrifices?

FERRER: You know, I think if we look back, we're all going to recognize that at the point we started reopening, I'm not sure we were as clear as we ought to have been about the fact that we weren't returning to normal life as we knew it before the safer-at-home orders had been instituted. And I think that might have created some confusion. I think as soon as we started saying people can go back to work and we can open our beaches, I think many people and - understandably tired of being at home and, you know, read that as, like, you know, great, you know. Like, we're back to normal. We can start doing our normal activities. I think we needed to be much clearer that, you know, what we're doing now is creating a new normal filled with lots of modifications and restrictions still.

FADEL: You know, as we speak, your county is dealing with multiple public health concerns this week on top of the pandemic - wildfires, a serious heat wave, bad air quality, rolling blackouts. You even reported the county's first death this year from West Nile virus. I imagine you must be more stretched than usual with these types of issues with the pandemic.

FERRER: Well, I would say people are working around the clock and have been since January. And, you know, we're trying really hard to figure out how to make sure everyone gets a little bit of time off, you know. This has, at this point, been a seven-day operation pretty much 24 hours a day. And here, it goes back to January.

FADEL: Public health officials all over the country are under severe stress, as you mentioned, from working long hours during this pandemic but also from being the target of lots of criticism and even threats. You yourself have received death threats. How hard has it been to cope with that?

FERRER: I don't think that that's been the most challenging part of this job. But it certainly is upsetting to both be targeted but also the impact that that has on everybody who's working here so hard. I think, you know, the hardest part of the work right now is dealing with the unknown of, you know, what this virus is capable of doing and what we need to be preparing for in the future. And I think it's, you know, the toll, the devastation. COVID-19 is the second leading cause of death here in LA County right now. And it's taken a tremendous toll in all of our communities. But particularly hard-hit is our Latinx, Latino, Latina community and our African American community, our Pacific Islander community. So, you know, that toll is I think what weighs on all of us the most, and what's most upsetting is trying to make sure that we can do everything we can with everyone's help and support to really both slow the spread and stop the devastation.

FADEL: Have you ever dealt with these types of threats in other public health issues that have come up in your career?

FERRER: I don't think most of us have ever faced this level of scrutiny and for some people, you know, just outright hatred around what we're asking people to do. But, you know, I recognize that these are extraordinary times and that some of our decisions have had devastating economic impact for individuals, their families and our communities as a whole. And I understand that people are really angry and scared and, you know, we share that. We share that frustration here as well, and we're charged with making some very tough decisions and really trying as we make these decisions to make sure that people understand why we're making the decisions. I think that's - our focus is try to do a better job on helping people understand how important it is to, at this point in time, restrict and modify some of our activities because it is what both prevents the loss of life but also reduces community transmission rates so that we can go on to reopening schools and getting more people back to work.

FADEL: Dr. Barbara Ferrer is the director of Los Angeles County's public health department. Dr. Ferrer, thank you for speaking with us.

FERRER: No, thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.