LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Los Angeles County's health officer says investigators are looking into reports of area religious institutions continuing to hold indoor services despite coronavirus restrictions barring such gatherings, and he said violation notices will be issued to offenders.
Dr. Muntu Davis also said three food-processing facilities that had been shuttered due to outbreaks of 40 cases or more have all been allowed to reopen, but an investigation is continuing into two apparent COVID-19 deaths of workers at one of the businesses, a Mission Foods plant in Commerce.
The county reported Thursday another 41 deaths due to COVID-19, although two of those deaths were actually announced Wednesday by health officials in Long Beach. Long Beach announced another six deaths Thursday afternoon, while Pasadena health officials reported one more fatality.
The new deaths lifted the county's overall death toll to 4,559.
The county also announced 2,628 new cases of the coronavirus, while Long Beach added 151 cases and Pasadena reported 13. The number of cases confirmed in the county throughout the pandemic stood at 186,036 as of Thursday afternoon.
Davis, speaking to reporters in an online news briefing, stressed that large gatherings are generally barred under coronavirus health orders, but there are exceptions allowing outdoor church services and political protests -- as long as attendees wear face coverings and practice social distancing.
“Unfortunately we've heard reports of some faith organizations operating outside of those health and safety requirements,'' Davis said. “From a health and safety perspective this is of great concern given the large number of COVID-19 cases that continue to be diagnosed in Los Angeles County. I want to express my gratitude to those organizations that are adhering to the health officer order and who have found ways to worship that do not put the wider community and their congregation at risk.
“... For those (violators) for which we are aware of and are able to confirm, we will send a notice of violation requesting their adherence,'' he said. “... We're hoping that institutions that are in violation of the health officer order will follow the example of so many other faith institutions who hold their services outdoors with safety protocols in place. Holding indoor services for dozens or hundreds of people during this pandemic, not only are they putting the health and safety of their congregants at risk, but they're also endangering the community at large.''
Davis referenced a March choir practice in Washington state that led to 87% of the attendees becoming infected with the virus, and two people dying.
“Certainly nobody wants a celebration of their faith or love of God to lead to such a tragic outcome,'' he said.
Davis did not indicate that any of the roughly 1,000 active virus outbreaks being investigated by the county involve any religious institutions.
He did say three food-processing plants that were recently shuttered by the county due to large-scale outbreaks that weren't reported to health officials as required have since been allowed to reopen.
Those outbreaks occurred at Golden State Foods Corp. in Industry, S&S Foods in Azusa and Mission Foods in Commerce. While the companies have reopened, Davis said an investigation is continuing into two deaths of Mission Food employees that may have due to the virus.
“We're still trying to confirm that information,'' he said.
Relatives of one of those employees, 67-year-old Jose Roberto Alvarez Mena, have complained that his death could have been prevented, saying employees at Mission Foods were never notified about an outbreak of the illness.
“It meant that not every precaution was taken, and this probably could have been avoided,'' Mena's daughter, Alisha Alvarez, told CBS2.
A Mission Foods' executive told the station in a statement that the facility was closed for only one day, during which it worked with county officials to ensure the company was in full compliance with health guidelines.
Despite the large numbers of cases and deaths reported this week, health officials offered a generally positive portrayal of key statistics in recent days. Davis said the county's seven-day average positivity rate had dropped to around 8.2%, which is down from double-digit levels earlier this month but still above the state standard of 8%. New hospital admissions have also been leveling off, but there have still consistently been more than 2,000 people a day hospitalized due to the virus.
As of Thursday, there were 2,022 people hospitalized due to coronavirus, according to the county.
Ferrer said the availability of intensive care unit beds and ventilators has been holding steady since April.
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