NPR’s Leila Fadel talks with Dr. Barbara Ferrer, Los Angeles County’s public health director, about the continuous coronavirus pandemic and the tension that public health officials are under.
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
California this week became the first U.S. state to report more than 600,000 coronavirus cases since the pandemic started. The state has actually likewise reported more than 10,000 deaths from COVID-19 About half of those casualties are focused in Los Angeles County, which saw a spike in new cases last month. Dr. Barbara Ferrer, the director of Los Angeles County’s public health department, said earlier this week that she’s carefully positive about things getting much 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 mournful milestone – 5,000 deaths from COVID considering that the pandemic started. Yet California was one of the very first to provide stay-at-home orders and motivate social distancing. And it worked. Did it amaze you when the numbers increased last month?
FERRER: We were devastated, I would say, more than stunned. I think one of our concerns, you know, the whole time with the pandemic has been not knowing everything we wished we understood. We had actually begun what we thought was a fairly progressive reopening. You understand, in hindsight, you look back, and you realize LA County has 10 million locals. When we decided that we could resume bars, the opening night we reopened bars, data indicates from a tracking system that over 500,000 individuals went to our nightspots. You understand, in the context of so lots of individuals live in such a big county, I do not think we were prepared for the numbers that we would then see in transmission rates.
FADEL: You stated previously this week at a press conference that you were meticulously positive now.
FERRER: Well, we’re meticulously optimistic. I want to give a great deal of credit to our chosen leaders, our board of managers who have been working with us, you know, when we saw this spike to find out what steps we required to take as a county, wanted focus on compliance. And a few of that implied revisiting a few of the sectors that had actually reopened and moving some things – with orders from the state, moving some activities from inside to outside, closing down our bars, once again, moving dining establishment dining outside and then actually dealing with compliance throughout the sectors.
FADEL: Is it more difficult to get individuals to comply now than it was at the very start of this pandemic, when it felt like a lot of individuals were willing to make the sacrifices?
FERRER: You know, I believe if we recall, we’re all going to recognize that at the point we began resuming, I’m not exactly sure we were as clear as we ought to have had to do with the reality that we weren’t returning to normal life as we knew it prior to the safer-at-home orders had been set up. And I believe that may have created some confusion. I think as quickly as we began saying individuals can go back to work and we can open our beaches, I believe lots of people and – naturally sick of being at home and, you understand, read that as, like, you understand, excellent, you know. Like, we’re back to typical. We can start doing our typical activities. I think we needed to be much clearer that, you know, what we’re doing now is producing a brand-new regular filled with great deals of adjustments and constraints still.
FADEL: You understand, as we speak, your county is handling numerous public health issues today on top of the pandemic – wildfires, a severe heat wave, bad air quality, rolling blackouts. You even reported the county’s very first death this year from West Nile infection. I picture you need to be more stretched than normal with these kinds of problems with the pandemic.
FERRER: Well, I would say people are working around the clock and have been given that January. And, you understand, we’re trying truly difficult to figure out how to make sure everyone gets a little bit of time off, you understand.
FADEL: Public health officials all over the country are under severe tension, as you discussed, from working long hours during this pandemic but also from being the target of lots of criticism and even risks.
FERRER: I do not think that that’s been the most tough part of this task. It definitely is upsetting to both be targeted however also the impact that has on everyone who’s working here so tough. I believe, you understand, the hardest part of the work today is handling the unknown of, you understand, what this virus is capable of doing and what we require to be getting ready for in the future. And I think it’s, you understand, the toll, the destruction. COVID-19 is the second leading cause of death here in LA County today. And it’s taken a remarkable toll in all of our neighborhoods. Especially hard-hit is our Latinx, Latino, Latina neighborhood and our African American community, our Pacific Islander neighborhood. So, you know, that toll is I think what weighs on everyone the most, and what’s most disturbing is attempting to ensure that we can do whatever we can with everyone’s assistance and support to actually both slow the spread and stop the destruction.
FADEL: Have you ever dealt with these types of hazards in other public health issues that have come up in your profession?
FERRER: I do not think most of us have ever faced this level of scrutiny and for some individuals, you know, just outright hatred around what we’re asking people to do. And I understand that individuals are really angry and frightened and, you know, we share that.
FADEL: Dr. Barbara Ferrer is the director of Los Angeles County’s public health department. Dr. Ferrer, thank you for consulting with us.
FERRER: No, thank you a lot.
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