Two months after Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a coordinated effort to establish wide-scale use of rapid, at-home COVID-19 tests, local health officials are poised to announce details of a pilot program next week that will employ an FDA-approved test and assess the feasibility of its widespread use.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into developing plans and implementing these sorts of studies, and we are very excited about the partnership with the city of L.A. and USC that we have made considerable progress over the last two months,” Dr. Paul Simon, chief science officer for the county Department of Public Health, told reporters in an online briefing Thursday.
“We will be having a press event nest week to share an update on where we’re at and hope to begin implementing at least the first phase of these studies very quickly,” he said.
Garcetti announced in August a collaboration with nationwide medical experts, bioscience firms and government leaders in an effort to develop rapid, low-cost at-home testing methods to dramatically increase the region’s coronavirus testing capacity. Although the mayor has repeatedly said the effort would likely make use of “paper-strip” tests, Simon said the program will actually use a swab test.
“We’re going to be using one … of the products that have received an emergency-use authorization by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration),” Simon said. “It is a rapid test, easy to use.”
He said additional details would be announced next week, but noted that while there have been “promising” developments surrounding paper-strip testing, “at least for our study we didn’t feel comfortable using that.”
Garcetti said during a recent news conference that he hoped to initially roll out the rapid testing program for first responders and firefighters, and possibly in a school setting. It was unclear how wide-spread the program might be initially. In August, he said he envisioned being able to eventually conduct as many as 1 million tests a week.
Although more rapid, wide-spread testing is considered a critical tool in tracking the virus and helping combat it, Simon noted that testing “is not a panacea.”
“Sometimes people think if we can just get cheap, easy-to-use tests for everybody that we’ve solved the problem,” he said. “But in reality, testing is just one component of a whole range of things we need to do before a vaccine is available. Probably even after a vaccine is available we’ll need to pay attention to the physical distancing recommendations and the face masks.”
The county on Thursday reported a staggering 3,600 new coronavirus cases, but the large number was attributed to the resolution of a technical glitch that delayed a large number of test results over the past several days. County health officials estimated that about 2,000 of the newly announced cases were the result of the backlog.
“So today, I think, reflects sort of the catch-up,” Simon said. “If you look over the last one to two weeks, we’ve been averaging somewhere around 1,000 cases, maybe a little bit over 1,000 cases a day.”
In addition to the county cases, Long Beach health officials reported 65 new coronavirus cases Thursday, while Pasadena added eight. The new cases lifted the countywide total from throughout the pandemic to 294,138.
The county also announced 18 new coronavirus-related deaths on Thursday, pushing the overall total to 6,956.
As of Thursday, there were 777 people hospitalized due to the virus, up from 758 on Wednesday, 730 on Tuesday, 722 on Monday and 752 on Sunday.
County public health director Barbara Ferrer said Wednesday there have been “concerning” upticks in cases in recent weeks, delaying a move to a less-restrictive tier of the state’s economic reopening roadmap.
But despite those concerns and the county’s continued banishment to the most restrictive “purple” tier of the state’s matrix, health officials said more restrictions on business operations will be lifted this week, including:
— removal of the one-day-advance-reservation requirement for customers of wineries and craft breweries;
— removal of the requirement that winery customers purchase food with alcohol; and
— authorization for family entertainment centers to reopen outdoors.
The county is also expanding a program that allows schools to resume in-person instruction for high-need and English-learning students. That program currently allows schools to bring such students back to campus, up to 10% of a school’s overall enrollment. That limit is now being increased to 25%, Barger said, “so more students and youth can have access to their teachers and the on-site support systems that are so critical for their growth and for their education.”
Public health director Barbara Ferrer said that as of this week, 986 schools are taking part in that program, with nearly 35,000 students now receiving in-person instruction and nearly 20,000 teachers and staff back on campuses.
Those changes in the county’s health officer order are expected to be finalized Friday.
Four school campuses this week also were approved for waivers allowing them to resume in-person instruction for students in pre-kindergarten through second grade. Ferrer said a total of 110 schools have applied for those waivers so far, and more applications are being processed by the county and state.
Applying for the waivers could also get much easier. The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday afternoon that the county plans to drop a requirement that schools obtain a letter of support from employee unions as part of the application process. Eliminating that requirement could entice more schools to seek the waivers, but could also generate dissent among teachers and employees hesitant to return to an in-person setting, The Times reported.
According to The Times, Ferrer announced the planned change during conference calls for school and school district leaders on Thursday, saying the requirement made it difficult for some schools to apply.
The change isn’t expected to impact the Los Angeles Unified School District, with Superintendent Austin Beutner saying last week the district does not plan to seek any waivers as it continues to prepare for the eventual return of all students, The Times reported.
The county is still reviewing a recent adjustment by the state allowing all personal-care businesses — such as tattoo parlors and massage therapy operations — to reopen, and it was unclear if those businesses will be included in the Friday revision.
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