Los Angeles County’s health officer said Thursday investigators are looking into reports of area religious institutions continuing to hold indoor services despite coronavirus restrictions barring such gatherings, and he said violation notices will be issued to offenders.
Dr. Muntu Davis also said three food-processing facilities that had been shuttered due to outbreaks of 40 cases or more have all been allowed to reopen, but an investigation is continuing into two apparent COVID-19 deaths of workers at one of the businesses, a Mission Foods plant in Commerce.
Davis, speaking to reporters in an online news briefing, stressed that large gatherings are generally barred under coronavirus health orders, but there are exceptions allowing outdoor church services and political protests — as long as attendees wear face coverings and practice social distancing.
“Unfortunately we’ve heard reports of some faith organizations operating outside of those health and safety requirements,” Davis said. “From a health and safety perspective this is of great concern given the large number of COVID-19 cases that continue to be diagnosed in Los Angeles County. I want to express my gratitude to those organizations that are adhering to the health officer order and who have found ways to worship that do not put the wider community and their congregation at risk.
“… For those (violators) for which we are aware of and are able to confirm, we will send a notice of violation requesting their adherence,” he said. “… We’re hoping that institutions that are in violation of the health officer order will follow the example of so many other faith institutions who hold their services outdoors with safety protocols in place. Holding indoor services for dozens or hundreds of people during this pandemic, not only are they putting the health and safety of their congregants at risk, but they’re also endangering the community at large.”
Davis referenced a March choir practice in Washington state that led to 87% of the attendees becoming infected with the virus, and two people dying.
“Certainly nobody wants a celebration of their faith or love of God to lead to such a tragic outcome,” he said.
Davis did not indicate that any of the roughly 1,000 active virus outbreaks being investigated by the county involve any religious institutions.
He did say three food-processing plants that were recently shuttered by the county due to large-scale outbreaks that weren’t reported to health officials as required have since been allowed to reopen.
Those outbreaks occurred at Golden State Foods Corp. in Industry, S&S Foods in Azusa and Mission Foods in Commerce. While the companies have reopened, Davis said an investigation is continuing into two deaths of Mission Food employees that may have due to the virus.
“We’re still trying to confirm that information,” he said.
Relatives of one of those employees, 67-year-old Jose Roberto Alvarez Mena, have complained that his death could have been prevented, saying employees at Mission Foods were never notified about an outbreak of the illness.
“It meant that not every precaution was taken, and this probably could have been avoided,” Mena’s daughter, Alisha Alvarez, told CBS2.
Mission Foods’ regional manufacturing director Paul de la O told the station in a statement that the facility was closed for only one day, during which it worked with county officials to ensure the company was in full compliance with health guidelines.
On its website, the company issued a statement saying it has taken “heightened measures” to ensure food safety and the safety of employees.
“Mission Foods has implemented increased cleaning and sanitization efforts for our facilities and our employees; protocols to monitor our employees’ health, including daily questionnaires and temperature monitoring; new policies and guidelines concerning our employees’ health; and comprehensive screening for visitors to Mission Foods’ facilities,” according to the company. “Our employees have been informed of these new protocols and cleaning and sanitization efforts. We remain in constant communication with our employees and are committed to ensuring their safety at all times.”
Davis said county public health officials learned of the outbreaks at all three of the food factories by anonymous tips called into a complaint hotline. He urged people with information about health violations to call the line at 888-700-9995.
He also again urged residents to sign up for an ongoing text-message-based survey designed to track residents’ health. The system sends participants occasional inquiries about how they are feeling and if they are displaying any symptoms of the virus, in an effort to track health trends. Davis said more thn 8,300 people have already signed up for the program.
To register, text @protect to 35134.
On Wednesday, the county reported a daily record high of 91 coronavirus deaths, along with more than 4,800 new cases of COVID-19, although the high numbers were due in part to a backlog in reporting.
The 91 deaths reported Wednesday included six fatalities that were actually announced Tuesday by health officials in Pasadena and Long Beach. Long Beach reported another two deaths Wednesday afternoon.
Public health director Barbara Ferrer also announced 4,825 new cases in the county, but said about 2,000 of those cases can be attributed to a backlog in results from the state’s laboratory reporting system that occurred between last Thursday and Sunday. Long Beach announced 53 new cases Wednesday, while Pasadena added 20.
The new numbers pushed the county’s overall coronavirus death toll as of Wednesday to 4,518, while the number of cases rose to 183,456.
Despite the large numbers of cases and deaths reported Wednesday, health officials offered a generally positive portrayal of key statistics. Davis said the county’s seven-day average positivity rate had dropped to around 8.2%, which is down from double-digit levels earlier this month but still above the state standard of 8%. New hospital admissions have also been leveling off, but there have still consistently been more than 2,000 people a day hospitalized due to the virus.
As of Wednesday, there were 2,045 people hospitalized due to coronavirus, according to the county.
Ferrer said the availability of intensive care unit beds and ventilators has been holding steady since April.
Dr. Christina Ghaly, the county’s health services director, also reported positive news in terms of the rate of transmission of the virus, or the average number of people a coronavirus-positive patient infects. As of Wednesday, that average was 0.92, below the benchmark of 1.
Ghaly said the lowering of that average and the slowing of new hospital admissions coincides with the tightening of health orders earlier this month, and continued adherence to infection-control measures is critical to continue the trends.
“This is good news but one that we need to treat with caution and maintain those behaviors,” Ghaly said.