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UCLA Epidemiologist Joins David Ryu for COVID-19 Telephone Town Hall Meeting

On Wednesday, April 1, City Council Member David Ryu held a phone-in town hall meeting about the COVID-19 pandemic, featuring Dr. Anne Rimoin, Professor of Epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and Infectious Disease Division of the Geffen School of Medicine.  During the session, Rimoin fielded questions from both Ryu and call-in constituents about COVID-19 itself, while Ryu outlined his own priorities and the city’s responses to the crisis so far.

Dr. Rimoin’s Remarks on COVID-19 Testing and Protection

According to Rimoin, COVID-19 testing with a nasal swab, whether done in a drive-through setting, hospital emergency room or doctor’s office, helps to identify which sick people have the virus and which don’t, so those who have it can be isolated to the greatest degree possible.  Testing also tells us, Rimoin said, “where we were 10-14 days ago” (since that’s how long symptoms take to show up after a person is exposed), and helps predict where trends are headed.  Rimoin stressed, however, that people only need to be tested right now if they are “very, very ill”… though she said that recommendation could change as time goes on and testing capabilities and resources ramp up.

Ryu asked Rimoin how knowledge gained from other infectious disease outbreaks, particularly Ebola, has informed the current crisis, and Rimoin said Ebola taught us the importance of screening all health care workers and first responders.  Testing the people on the front lines, she said, helps determine rates of tranmission, which then helps to “reimagine” how to prevent the spread of the disease.  Rimoin said it’s extremely important to understand, among health care workers, who’s infected and how, and also to learn which individuals have some level of immunity and can rotate back to the front lines as soon as possible. (Ryu added that a study led by Dr. Rimoin is currently testing 4,000 local first responders every two weeks to study virus transmission and behavior, and is seeking funding to increase that number. )

Finally, Rimoin said the best way to protect ourselves is exactly what we’ve been hearing about for the last few weeks:  social distancing, hand washing, avoiding others who are or may be sick, and covering our faces if we can.  These will help more than anything to slow the spread of the disease, she said. “We are always behind the curve.  We have to get in front of it.”

Q&A with Dr. Rimoin

Later in the meeting, after Ryu made his own presentation about city responses (summarized below), Rimoin returned to answer questions from call-in attendees.   Topics included:

Why is treatment of COVID-19 with chloroquine and azithromycin still considered “anecdotal,” when a study in France showed it may help people recover faster?

Rimoin noted that the French study was very small, including fewer than 30 people, which is not a big or diverse enough group to provide conclusive results or to adequately study potential dangerous side effects.  Also, she said, the study did not follow people long enough to provde long-term information about recovery and survival.  So while more information is coming out every day about potential treatments, Rimoin said, we don’t have enough information on this particular treatment yet to say it’s safe for a large-scale rollout.

Can pets get or transmit COVID-19?

Rimoin said scientists are still trying to understand whether and/or how the virus can be transmitted in animals, and early testing indicates that dogs cannot be infected, but cats may be vulnerable.  She noted, however, that this is a “novel” (brand new) virus, and these results are from very small samples in a laboratory environment, not more usual habitats, so no one really knows yet.  If you do get sick, Rimoin said, you may want to stay away from your animals if you can…but at this point, she also said, the danger seems very low, and the emotional benefits from our pets’ company probably outweighs the risks, if any.

Can we make our own hand sanitizers and face masks?

Rimoin said there is some evidence that do-it-yourself hand sanitizers  (made with ingredients such as bleach or alcohol), can be helpful…but it’s much more effective to just wash hands frequently with soap and water.  As for masks, Rimoin cautioned that medical-grade masks should be reserved for medical personnel, who need them most and are the most vulnerable position for both infection and transmission of the virus, so no one else should use them.  The rest of us, she said, can wear other kinds of face coverings, including homemade masks.  Rimoin noted, however, that she worries about a false sense of security among people who wear homemade masks, because they really just help the wearer keep their own respiratory droplets from spreading, and do not provide protection from infection.  Still though, Rimoin said acting as if we each have the virus and making efforts to protect others is important. “The thing everyone can do,” she said, “is keep our droplets to ourselves.”

Wouldn’t testing the general population help to prevent the spread of the disease better than just testing people who are already sick?

According to Rimoin, testing the sick is most immediately important so those who do have the disease can be isolated and kept from spreading it, especially in hospitals where so many others could be easily infected.  Also, she said, identifying those who actually have the virus helps to study and test various treatment protocols, which couldn’t be done if you don’t know who has it and who doesn’t.   Finally, Rimoin also noted that tests are not being done yet on people who have no symptoms simply because testing equipment and resources are still too scarce (we’d need “many millions” of tests to do that). Also, even if people test negative this week, they’d have to be tested repeatedly to see if they become infected at some point in the future, which would stretch our too-thin resources even further.

Ryu’s COVID-19 Response Priorities

During his portion of the meeting, between Dr. Rimoin’s opening remarks and her later Q&A with the audience, Ryu said that he personally has three pandemic response priorities:


Ryu reiterated that we need to identify who has the virus as quickly as possible, so we can isolate and treat it most effectively.  And while the federal government’s response has been lagging and lacking so far, he said, “We’re not going to wait for the Feds to help us out…We are Los Angeles; we are a country unto ourselves.” To this end, Ryu noted his agreement, announced last week, with South Korean company testing company SeeGene, to immediately purchase and process 20,000 COVID-19 test kits for Los Angeles, and up to 100,000 more per week, if resouces for administering and processing the kits (swabs, masks, trays, etc.) can be secured.

Aid for Working Families

Ryu said the state of California has recently expanded eligibility for unemployment insurance, and details can be found at the California Employment Development Department’s website,  In addition, he said, resources for employment opportunities can be found at his own website,, as well as  Also, information about business loans can be found at and  And the non-profit Jewish Free Loan Association is offering loans for both businesses and individuals, LAUSD is providing free “Grab and Go” meals for district students, and homeowners can reach out to their mortgage lenders for 90-day forebearances on their mortgages, and a 12-month payback window on missed rents (3 months for businesses).  Note, though, that this is not debt forgiveness; just payment deferrals.  Finally, Ryu said, the city of Los Angeles, has also passed a moratorium on rent increases in rent-controlled properties, as well as evictions during the crisis.  And Ryu said he would like to expand all of these protections, if he can, to “bail out Main Street” instead of larger corporations.

Help for Senior Citizens

Ryu said he has used some of his CD4 discretionary funds to hire a cleaning team specifically for senior facilities, and people can contact his office to request the service.  Ryu said he is also working to provide grocery delivery to vulnerable populations, including seniors, and his office can also help connect people in need to that service.  Finally, Ryu noted that the city’s current mandate creating separate grocery shopping hours for seniors is nice, but he would still advise that seniors, a particularly vulnerable group, don’t go out at all if they can avoid it, and should use other services or contact his office if they need help.

In addtion to the above priorities, Ryu said he is also particularly concerned about resources for homeless neighbors during the crisis.  He noted that the city has set up 42 shelters in now-closed city recreation centers, including two in CD 4 – one which opened last week at Pan Pacific Park (and is already filled to capacity), and one that will open soon at Van Nuys/Sherman Oaks Park.  Ryu said the city is also installing handwashing stations around the city (with even more coming soon), and that he is supporting the use of hotel and motel vouchers to provide shelter for homeless individuals.  Ryu invited hotel and motel operators who are willing to offer their space to contact him, and also noted that the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority is working to identify people who need those rooms.

Finally, Ryu encouraged residents to donate to the many non-profit groups that are also working hard to provide resources to those in need during the pandemic.  He said monetary donations are currently most needed, but other kinds of items or volunteer hours are also helpful to some groups.  Among possible recipients for donations, he suggested Project Angel Food, Big Sunday, Jewish Family Services, and the Center at Blessed Sacrament as groups he has personally connected with.

“Your government has your back,” Ryu said.  “We’re going to do everything possible.”

Other Information

Finally, in questions after his general remarks, Ryu was asked about topics ranging from increasing racism against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 crisis to LADPW policies, and upcoming property tax deadlines.  In response, he noted:

  • As an Asian American himself, Ryu said he is “disgusted” by attacks from those who blame Asians for the current crisis.  He said the virus is “an equal-opportunity afflictor,” and that he is working with several different communities and community organizations to help combat this issue.
  • Property taxes will “almost certainly be deferred,” Ryu said…though he noted that it is a state-level decision, and not something that can be done at the city our county level.  He said the county assessor will also be waiving late fees.
  • Ryu said he will make sure that LADWP does not turn off water or power for customers who can’t pay their bills during the crisis, but he noted that people are using more of these utilities now that they’re home all day.  Ryu said he is working on a freeeze and cap for utility bills, to hold off billing for the increased usage as long as possible, and also possibly forgiving that increased portion of people’s bills.

[This story was updated after initial publication to clarify several points about first responder testing, shortages of ancillary testing supplies, and mortgage and rent relief.]

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Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - with deep roots in both the Sycamore Square and West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhoods. She spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and has been writing for the Buzz since 2015.

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