STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's get some lessons from a coronavirus hot spot. California was considered an example of early action with the country's first statewide lockdown, but after easing restrictions, California leads the country with the most coronavirus cases - nearly half a million. So let's zero in on Los Angeles County. Barbara Ferrer is director of the LA County Department of Public Health, and we asked if she understood what's driving the latest increase.
BARBARA FERRER: You know, we're never sure with this virus. I feel pretty confident saying that, here in LA County, there's a variety of strategies to sort of mitigate the greatest risks for transmission - you know, having people inside who aren't wearing face coverings who are with people who aren't in their household. We know that's a risky setting. Having people who are, in fact, gathering for the birthday parties that they put off, eating and drinking together - high risk for transmission, even if some of those activities are happening outdoors.
I feel pretty confident that we understand, also, what's going on in workplaces - you know, can't have people crammed into workplaces with no physical barriers between them, not able to wear face coverings and not expect that we're going to end up where we have here in our county, which is large outbreaks in the manufacturing industry. Those are things we can fix.
INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that. Some people may not know that LA employs about as many manufacturing employees as any place in the country. And you've had these major outbreaks at a garment-maker...
INSKEEP: ...At a meatpacking plant.
INSKEEP: Were the conditions there what you just described - basically, no protective measures being taken?
FERRER: Yeah, I think the garment factory was a really good example of people not following our directives. When we walked into the garment factory where we had over 300 cases - and, unfortunately, four people died - we found cardboard partitions with holes in them so that the piecework could get passed easily from one station to the other. That's not the intent of having a physical barrier. And cardboard does not work as effectively as what we call, you know, these impermeable, often heavy plastic barriers. So, you know, we're clear in our directives. But manufacturers have to protect their workers. It's unconscionable. It's not moral to have workers exposed because they're there doing essential work.
INSKEEP: You know, when you think about garment jobs or meatpacking jobs, these are tough jobs. They're often done by immigrants. And, of course, we have heard all about the different disparities in different races, different groups of people. Is that being driven by the kind of work that some people end up doing in LA?
FERRER: Yeah, I think it is being driven in part by that. You know, I would say if you look at who's hardest hit in LA County - and I don't think we're unique - you're going to find our Latinx, Latino population is the hardest hit, followed closely by Blacks and African Americans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders. I think it is driven by workplace exposures, and then people go back to their homes, with multigenerational family members living together. It's the perfect storm for a lot of spread.
And I also think if we ask people to isolate and quarantine, they need support. We need a safety net. You can't really be choosing between, am I going to be able to feed my family and pay my rent or am I going to be able to quarantine when I'm told I'm a close contact?
INSKEEP: How devastating is it for working people that the schools are not going to open as normal?
FERRER: It's mixed, I think, for working people. I think some working people really are worried about their children going back to school. You know, here in LA County, we obviously are seeing our highest numbers of cases over the last few weeks than we've ever seen, and I think there's legitimate worry amongst the staff and the teachers that would need to go back. But we do have to have solutions for child care, and we need to make sure that those child care or extended day programs for school-aged children are run effectively and provide all of the safety precautions.
INSKEEP: Do you assume that the semester is gone, that there will be remote learning for this semester?
FERRER: You know, I think it's up to all of us. Our state has set a threshold that you have to meet in order to be able to open your schools for in-classroom learning. We haven't met it yet in LA County. We're in good company. I think 34 other counties here also haven't met that threshold. So we know what we need to do if we want to open up our schools again, and it's going to require every single person and every single business to get back into the game, to feel comfortable that they know what they need to do to slow the spread.
INSKEEP: Barbara Ferrer is the director of Los Angeles County's Department of Public Health. Thank you so much.
FERRER: Thanks a lot for calling us.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.