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LA County Public Health Director On Area's Spike In COVID-19 Cases

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start today by taking another look at a shocking statistic that led the news earlier this week. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said life expectancy in the U.S. dropped 1 1/2 years in 2020. That drop from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.3 years in 2020 was the biggest decline in U.S. life expectancy since World War II. And the drop was even steeper for Black and Latino Americans - about three years.

The main culprit here was COVID. The CDC said COVID was 74% responsible for this decline in life expectancy. But it's not the only one, as you may know from what you see in your own city or town where drug overdoses and a surge in homicides, especially involving guns, are also playing a role. So we decided to take a deeper look at all three of these public health crises today. And we're going to ask some of the questions you might have, including whether these are related in some way.

Let's begin now with the pandemic and one of the places around the country where COVID cases have been on the rise lately - Los Angeles County. The average daily case count in the county is nine times higher now than it was only four weeks ago. And that's despite the fact that 62% of residents there over the age of 16 are fully vaccinated. To learn more about how the county is responding, we called Dr. Barbara Ferrer. She is the public health director for LA County, and she's with us now. Dr. Ferrer, thank you so much for being with us once again.

BARBARA FERRER: Thank you so much, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: So what's your take, first of all, on why this is happening? Is it this new variant?

FERRER: You know, certainly in LA County, really, most of our increase is attributed to a delta variant that's highly infectious. It has many opportunities to infect those people that are unvaccinated. And even though, as you noted, you know, we have a large number of people fully vaccinated and we're extraordinarily grateful to everybody who's come in to get vaccinated, we still have about 4 million people here in LA County that are not vaccinated, including 1.3 million children under the age of 12. Couple this with the fact that we have fully reopened, meaning that there's a lot more intermingling. You can see how easy it is for there to be a lot of spread.

MARTIN: And that's one reason why you reimposed a mandate for everybody to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. I think that mandate went into effect just a week ago. What is your sense about whether it's - has it helped?

FERRER: We won't know if it's helped for a few weeks because, remember, we have a 14-day incubation period here. So we'll need to wait a while to see how effective it is on really getting us back to slowing transmission. There is the possibility, even for people fully vaccinated, for them to become infected, for them to pass on that infection to others. And although that's very small, when you have a lot of community transmission, we all should do everything we can to reduce those risks. And that means putting on a mask when you're indoors.

MARTIN: I want to pivot to two other public health issues before we let you go. And the first is gun violence. I was just checking the numbers just from - the latest I have is from June in Los Angeles city - in the city. A total of 651 people were shot by mid-June in Los Angeles compared to 434 last year. The city is averaging about 27 shooting victims per week. And there have already been about 162 homicides compared to 129 during the same period in 2020. I mean, that's just up to mid-June. What do you think is going on here? And as a public health official, how do you respond to this?

FERRER: We agree that it's noticeable and alarming and that, in fact, it requires, you know, immediate action across many different fronts, including the work that we've been doing, you know, over the last few years around really having what we call violence interventionists that are out and about in the communities, building peace amongst warring factions and creating opportunities for people to be able to gather with safety. I do think that the alarming increase in gun violence, in fact, may be related to many of the stressors that were exacerbated by COVID.

But I also want to note that, while there have been a lot of stressors associated with the pandemic, gun violence also really depends on sort of easy access to guns. And that's an issue that we also have to address through policy measures and working, again, with law enforcement and with our criminal justice system.

MARTIN: It just seems as, like, this kind of wave upon wave of public health crises. I mean, over the past, you know, 18 months, your office and that of so many others, of course, had to be concerned - you know, primarily concerned and give priority to the COVID crisis. But then you've got these other issues, like the opioid epidemic, that never went away. And then you've got gun violence on top of that. Does it feel overwhelming? I'm just wondering, like, as a public health professional, what's this been like for you?

FERRER: You know, public health has really never been able - even during COVID, we cannot respond by ourselves. We have relied so heavily on our partners. And I think the same thing holds true when you think about how we're going to address violence, how we're going to address substance use disorders, how we're going to allow people to feel connected and recover with appropriate support. You know, that requires, really, a vast array of support and resources from so many others.

And again, when we look at what happened during COVID, none of us can fail to see the fact that the inequities that have been long-standing and contribute, in fact, to so many of the issues that you're raising, you know, preceded the pandemic. And in fact, the inequitable distribution of sort of resources and opportunities for good health really then contributed to sort of the overwhelming disproportionality we saw play out with COVID. That disproportionality you see play out again when you look at who is really most impacted by gun violence. And it plays out again when you think about disproportionality around the ravages that we're seeing because of the drug epidemic.

MARTIN: That is Dr. Barbara Ferrer. She is the public health director for Los Angeles County. Dr. Ferrer, thank you so much for talking with us once again.

FERRER: Thank you so much, Michel, for inviting me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.