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Why LA County Is Lifting Restrictions Despite Coronavirus Surge


Just weeks ago, hospitals here in Los Angeles were at capacity. So it came as something of a surprise this week when California's governor, Gavin Newsom, lifted stay-at-home orders meant to stop the spread of the coronavirus. And then LA County officials followed suit. Outdoor dining will be allowed to resume starting Friday. And businesses like nail and hair salons have already been allowed to reopen with some restrictions. I asked Barbara Ferrer, the public health director for LA County, why county officials felt it was safe to lift restrictions now.

BARBARA FERRER: I think the reason why they're getting lifted now is if you look at sort of our trends, you'll see that we're seeing a dramatic decline in the number of cases, which will lead to continued decreases in the number of people that are hospitalized. And within a few weeks, it will also lead to a decline in the number of people who are passing away from COVID-19.

CHANG: But do you think that the messaging has been a little bit confusing? I mean, you, the mayor here, the governor of California, other officials have told the public that it is up to all of us to continue to follow rules like masking, like social distancing. But then again, we're also seeing this reopening. Do you think that reopening restaurants and salons might actually just encourage more gathering?

FERRER: Well, I hope not. I hope that people understand the basic message is still the same. Stay home as much as possible. When you need to go out, take all of your precautions. And all workplaces, they must adhere to the safety rules. That message hasn't changed. I think what we're asking people to do is, when our numbers start going down, it's reasonable for us to try to reopen some of the sectors. That only works if everyone follows the rules.

CHANG: What have you seen from past behavior that convinces you people won't just think, oh, it's life back to normal now? Hey, the reopening is happening. Let's just start gathering. What makes you think people won't do that?

FERRER: You know, a couple of things I think have changed significantly since November. When we went into the early part of November, we really - probably just about 10% of people around LA County had been infected by then. Folks are estimating that over 30% of people in LA County have now been infected. So I think there's a lot more awareness of how serious this virus is at this point, because a lot more people have had their lives touched by the devastation that this virus has wrought.

I think the second issue for us is with 30-plus percent of our folks having been infected, we likely have less susceptible people to getting infected as we move forward. So if we are very cautious, we might not have as much spread as we move forward because so many people already have some immunity to COVID-19. And certainly for those people who are getting vaccinated, 95% of them are less likely to have any serious illness if they do get infected.

CHANG: Well, if I may, then why not during this reopening of restaurants and salons, why not vaccinate those restaurant workers and those salon workers as quickly as possible now?

FERRER: It's a really good question. As a reminder, we adhere to the state's prioritization and ranking of people who need to get vaccinated. I do want to note that the people who are essential workers and are working at all of the places that are open do have additional risk. But for the last 11 months, before we had any vaccines, we had many times where people were able to do their job, and everybody adhered to the rules, and we didn't have huge outbreaks.

CHANG: So what I think I'm hearing you say is that ultimately, the benefits of reopening are worth the risks of the virus still getting transmitted at significant levels.

FERRER: You know, I think what you're hearing me say is we have to figure out a way to start reopening our economy while we're still living with this virus, and that it will take us months and months and months to vaccinate enough people to really acquire what's been called herd immunity. And there's no really sustainable path forward to think that we will keep everything closed until next fall.

CHANG: LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, thank you very much for joining us today.

FERRER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.