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Los Angeles, D.C. And Chicago Still Seeing Plateau, Not Decline In New COVID-19 Cases


Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House coronavirus task force offered some good news this week. She said, in a lot of U.S. cities, COVID-19 cases are falling. There are fewer people going into the hospital. And fewer people are dying. But she also pointed out something that worries her. In a couple cities - Washington, D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles - Dr. Birx says cases aren't going down. In fact, they've plateaued. We have reporters in those three cities. And they've been asking what's going on. Melissa Block is in D.C. Adrian Florido is in LA. And David Schaper is in Chicago. Good morning to you all.



ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: David, let's start with you. What do the numbers in Chicago show us?

SCHAPER: Well, let's start with the whole state of Illinois first, which passed a big milestone yesterday, with more than 100,000 people who have now tested positive for the coronavirus. And more than 4,500 of them have now died of COVID-19. The reason the state figures are important is that 90% of those testing positive in Illinois live in the Chicago metropolitan area and 40% of them in the city of Chicago itself. So in recent days, there has been some good news, though. The numbers have been trending down, according to Illinois Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike.


NGOZI EZIKE: We are seeing a decrease in the numbers of people hospitalized, the numbers of people in the ICU and the numbers of individuals on the ventilators associated with COVID-19.

SCHAPER: And Dr. Ezike says, as the state has been able to ramp up testing and contact tracing in recent weeks, it's better able to slow outbreaks. So the state is now below that important 20% threshold of people who are testing positive out of the number of people being tested.

KING: OK. So if I understand you, health officials say there is a decline in Chicago. It's just happening later than in other parts of the country. Do we know why that is?

SCHAPER: Yeah. Public health officials are still trying to figure out exactly why that is. But it's not because the virus arrived here any later than anywhere else in the country. The Chicago area had one of the first confirmed COVID-19 cases and didn't lag behind - far behind Seattle, California, New York and other regions in becoming a hotspot.

Here, as in many other parts of the country, the virus has disproportionately affected lower income communities and people of color. But the interesting trend here is that, while initially about 70% of COVID-19 cases were among African Americans, the more recent surge in cases has been among Latinos, according to Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.

ALLISON ARWADY: If we go back over the last few weeks, back to April 26, almost 60% of our new cases have been in that group.

SCHAPER: And what she says some of the reasons may be for this is that there are a lot of essential workers in the Latino population here, not the kind of jobs that you can work from home. And secondly, they tend to live in more crowded housing, where it's more difficult to keep a physical separation from one another.

KING: Oh, OK. That's what's happening in Chicago. Thanks, David Schaper. Melissa, you are here in D.C. Dr. Birx says D.C., the D.C. metro area, also plateauing. You called some officials. What did they say?

BLOCK: Well, I think it depends on what you mean by plateau. If you mean that trend lines are absolutely flat, I don't think that's really what's going on in the D.C. metro area. The mayor of the city says D.C. is on track to meet its targets for reopening. She points to a sustained decrease in community spread of coronavirus over 10 days. And the goal is to get to 14 days.

COVID deaths per day are in single digits in the city. That's been pretty constant for a while now. And I asked Dr. Lynn Goldman about the trend lines here. She's dean of the School of Public Health at the George Washington University.

LYNN GOLDMAN: We're heading in the right direction, but not with a steep drop like you see in many other places.

BLOCK: So heading in the right direction. I should mention, she is on the mayor's task force that's helping figure out when to reopen D.C. The mayor has extended the stay-at-home order for the city until June 8. And later today, she's expected to announce plans for a phased reopening. And on Friday, possibly, expected to announce a plan for reopening schools in the fall.

KING: OK. That's some good news. There is something happening in this area that is geographically interesting, right? There are counties around D.C. and Virginia and Maryland that have kept their stay-at-home orders in place even as those states - Virginia and Maryland - have started opening up. Why are the counties doing it differently?

BLOCK: Well, it's because this area is so interconnected. I mean, D.C. is surrounded by about seven or eight counties that have all pretty much been in lockstep in keeping their stay-at-home orders in place. Look at Prince George's County, Md. It surrounds about half of D.C. and overwhelmingly a county with communities of color - mostly African American, also Hispanic. And those communities have been disproportionately hit by the coronavirus.

I talked with Dr. Joseph Wright. He's the chief medical officer at the University of Maryland Capital Region Health system in OG County. And he described that county as the epicenter of the epicenter. He talked about having a tsunami of COVID patients coming through their doors. So I asked him, are you past the peak?

JOSEPH WRIGHT: Sometimes, you can only appreciate the peak in the rearview mirror. We have just now, just, literally, this week, seen a flattening of our local health system curve.

BLOCK: And, Noel, like a lot of people that I talked to, he's really worried about what happens after Memorial Day weekend - more and more people getting out and about - really worried that that flattened curve that they're finally starting to see could spike upward again.

KING: OK. So that's the D.C. metro area. And then, Adrian Florido, you are around 3,000 miles away from us in Los Angeles. That's the epicenter of the outbreak in California. What's been happening there?

FLORIDO: Hi, Noel. Yeah. LA is the source of about half of California's coronavirus infections. And infections are still ticking up here. There were about 1,300 new cases reported in LA County yesterday, bringing the county total above 40,000. There are also 57 new deaths. But despite that, health officials say they are optimistic about where things are headed. One good sign is hospitalizations. Yesterday, the county's health director, Barbara Ferrer, said hospitalizations for COVID-19 are decreasing every day. They're slight decreases, but it is still good news.

And there's more good news if we look at the rate of transmissions. In other words, how many people is each infected person passing the virus onto? Back in March, before California's stay-at-home orders took effect, each infected person in LA County was infecting an average of 3 1/2 people. Yesterday, officials said that that number had fallen to less than one.

KING: That is some really good news. I mean, Adrian, as you know, California is a massive state. And there are parts of it - more rural parts have already started to reopen. What do these...


KING: ...Latest numbers mean for urban Los Angeles reopening?

FLORIDO: Yeah. Because cases are still ticking up and because LA is such a big, urban place, the reopening that is starting in other parts of the state is going to be a lot slower and a lot harder here. Officials have set a date of July 4 for when they hope to have LA mostly up and running. And what they hope is that once that begins, that that rate of transmission I was talking about will remain around where it is now.

So if each infected person continues to infect just about one other person, officials say that by the end of the year, around 8% of all Angelenos will have contracted the virus. If that transmission rate increases even by just half - to each person infecting about 1 1/2 additional people - models show that by the end of the year, 44% of Angelenos could have gotten the virus, which is why officials want to take this reopening very slowly, very carefully.

KING: It seems to make a lot of sense. Adrian Florido in Los Angeles. Melissa Block in Washington, D.C. And David Schaper in Chicago. Thank you all.

FLORIDO: Thank you.

BLOCK: You're welcome.

SCHAPER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.

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