Southland officials continue to ramp up precautions against COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, as the first U.S. death from the disease was reported Saturday in the Pacific Northwest.
The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health advised travelers to talk with their doctors before travel “to make sure you have received the recommended vaccines and medications specific to your destination.”
Public health officials said Saturday the victim was a man in his 50s and a resident of King County, Washington, who had underlying health issues.
President Donald Trump gave a televised update on the outbreak Saturday, where he announced new travel restrictions involving Iran and warnings about travel to parts of Italy and South Korea, where high virus activity has been detected.
Trump appeared with Vice President Mike Pence — who was appointed by Trump to lead the U.S. response to the crisis — and officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, who all stressed that the current risk to U.S. citizens was extremely low.
At Los Angeles International Airport, United Airlines has announced plans to suspend flights to and from Tokyo’s Narita International Airport beginning March 8. United also extended its already-in-place flight suspensions to other regions.
The flights between LAX and Tokyo Narita will remain suspended until at least April 24.
The airline also suspended Tokyo Narita service from Houston and Chicago. United flights to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport from San Francisco have not been affected.
“After evaluating our operations between the U.S. and Beijing, Chengdu, Hong Kong and Shanghai, we’ve decided to suspend those flights through April 30,” according to an online update from the airline. “We’ve also suspended ticket sales for MileagePlus Award travel and flights between the U.S. and China on our partner airlines through April 30.
The airline is waiving some flight-change fees and is also offering refunds on some flights to select cities.
Multiple other airlines have already suspended or reduced flights to China and Hong Kong, but United is believed to be the first to halt flights to Japan and Singapore.
On Friday, health officials said the Korean Air flight attendant who worked flights out of LAX before being diagnosed with coronavirus “was not symptomatic” and “did not pose any risk to others while in L.A. County.”
The flight attendant, who was diagnosed with the virus in South Korea, worked flights between LAX and Seoul on Feb. 19 and 20, according to South Korean media outlets.
Meanwhile, City Councilman Herb Wesson has introduced a motion calling for the Los Angeles to create public education campaigns online, on television and through telephone hotlines or other media to provide information about the global outbreak.
“There are many local communities, including those which are not English-speaking, which are left in the dark about this disease with no credible place to which to turn for answers,” Wesson wrote in his motion. “Just recently, news of an airline attendant having landed at LAX from a country where the coronavirus has spread greatly has created wide speculation and alarm that the virus is now being spread locally unchecked.”
The councilman’s motion called for the city’s Emergency Management Department and Fire Department to develop the campaigns.
The council’s Public Safety Committee met on Wednesday to discuss the local effects of COVID-19, and city officials said although there’s no reason to panic in Los Angeles, they are prepared in the event the virus does start spreading faster.
“The current risk to L.A. County residents for getting COVID-19 is very low. The best things people can do to protect themselves from any respiratory virus, including COVID-19, are the simple, everyday preventative measures such as washing hands, covering your cough and avoiding going out when sick,” said Dr. Prabhu Gounder, medical director of the county health department’s respiratory diseases unit, which is leading the county’s response to the outbreak.
“In addition, influenza activity is still very high, and we want to encourage everyone to get the flu vaccine, if they haven’t done so already,” Gounder said during the City Council’s Public Safety Committee meeting.
Gounder said the city’s Emergency Management Department has been in contact with other city agencies, urging them to let employees who are sick stay home and not potentially infect others.
There has only been one case of the coronavirus detected in Los Angeles County. That person has since been treated and cleared of the virus, but it stayed with the patient for 21 days, health officials said.
DPH officials said they’ve been reviewing the daily updates from the CDC and responding to their instructions, as well as monitoring travelers coming from China, where the virus originated in the Hubei province.
Mayor Eric Garcetti told reporters last week that extensive precautions are being taken at Los Angeles International Airport to help prevent a spread of the virus, such as disinfecting various surfaces every hour.
County health officials said they are holding conferences with city officials and medical professionals on a near-daily basis, and they are trying to obtain testing kits for local monitoring from the CDC. Those kits were supposed to arrive last week, but the outbreak has grown significantly worldwide since then, causing a delay.
The CDC has been issuing 14-day quarantines for people who have symptoms or may have been exposed to the virus.
COVID-19 was first reported as being transmitted from animals to humans, but the CDC confirmed last month that it can now be transferred from human to human.
Aram Sahakian, the general manager of the Los Angeles city’s Emergency Management Department, said scientists have reported that when the virus made the “jump” from animals to humans, it started to evolve and became more resilient, “and it’s probably still mutating.”
“That’s why there’s no immediate hope for a vaccine in the nearest future,” Sahakian said. “Not to scare anybody, but those are the facts.”
He said regular treatment and care is the best they can provide in order to help infected people get better, adding that very young people, elderly people and those with certain health problems are most at risk for experiencing elevated symptoms of the virus.
When officials were asked what could trigger a county state of emergency regarding the virus, they said they were hesitant to immediately say. The county issued a similar emergency declaration for the hepatitis A outbreak that spread among homeless people between 2016 and 2018.
“It is not tied to (whether we have) a certain number of cases to have an emergency,” Sahakian said. “If the core group preparing for this incident sees the need for more resources, they can pull the trigger on it. It doesn’t mean (the virus) is out of control.”
Orange County declared a local health emergency Wednesday. San Francisco did so on Tuesday, and San Diego County declared an emergency earlier this month.
Gounder said there have been reports of some people being asymptomatic, meaning they contracted the virus but did not experience any of its symptoms, which can make the virus more difficult to detect.
Councilman David Ryu said he was concerned about the virus causing discrimination against select groups of people.
“I wanted to make sure that we provide the proper information because there are some xenophobia (incidents) happening,” Ryu said. “I know you said they’re only testing people from mainland China, but as we know, we have cases confirmed all throughout the world, so we want to make sure that this is not an opportunity for people to have hysteria, because we have professionals working on this.”
Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez said she would like a report on available protective gear for fire or medical personnel to reduce their risk of exposure to the virus.
“Hopefully we’re prepared for something that won’t be an issue,” Rodriguez said.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she has authored a motion asking the board to request funding from the federal government to combat the coronavirus at its March 4 meeting.
Trump said officials from the nation’s leading pharmaceutical companies would meet with him Monday at the White House to discuss plans for a vaccine. That meeting was already planned to discuss lowering drug prices but now will focus on the COVID-19 outbreak as well, Trump said.