F. Castro/SFVS

A Dia de los Muertos altar at Pacoima City Hall honors those who have died from COVID-19, including police officer Valentin Martinez from Mission Police Station.

Dr. Bernard Klein, a board-certified internal medicine physician and chief executive for the Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, knew something had changed because he and his medical center staff were again witnessing an increase of COVID-19 cases in their facility.

“At the peak of the pandemic early on, Holy Cross had over 60 patients hospitalized at one time,” Klein said. “And then, about 2-4 weeks ago we were in the high teens — 17-19 patients.

“[But] we’ve seen over the last two weeks a steady increase; last week we had over 30 patients again. Right now we’re in the mid-20s.”

So Klein was “not surprised” by the spike in coronavirus cases being reported this week by the Los Angeles County Health Department. But even he was taken somewhat aback at the dismayingly high rate of increases in various communities in the Valley.

Department officials announced on Monday, Nov. 9, that Pacoima had “topped the list” of those communities most impacted “with an adjusted rate over two weeks” of 506 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents. That was more than double the countywide rate of 188 cases per 100,000 residents.

Next on that list was Sun Valley, with 456 cases per 100,000 residents. Other Valley communities listed were Canoga Park, Glendale, North Hollywood, Panorama City, and Van Nuys.

“And the model we’re looking at, the COVID positivity rate in the community, suggests we’ll continue to see a gradual increase over the next two weeks,” Klein said. “After that we don’t know, because the models don’t go beyond two weeks in predicting.”

The county reported 2,318 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, Nov. 10, while Long Beach health officials added 118 more. The new cases increased the cumulative countywide total since the start of the pandemic to 325,994.

Yet it is evident that a segment of the public still doesn’t believe — or wants to believe — that COVID-19 is a serious health threat despite the fact that almost 240,000 have died from it nationally.

On the Sun/El Sol’s Instagram page, reader krazee4life asked how Pacoima could top the list “when the city hasn’t had any of those type of gatherings? Covid (sic) be selective, huh?”

Another reader, brendersterr, took exception to that opinion by pointing out that “Literally everyone and their mamas was out celebrating the sports victories [of the Dodgers and Lakers] and very few people were wearing masks. Covid (sic) is selective yes, around people who have been exposed; around people with weak  immune systems around ppl who have to work in (expletive) conditions and guess what? Our city is a demographic that falls under all three. Be grateful you haven’t contracted the virus and if you did, be grateful you survived it, because 200,000 plus Americans, including some of my neighbors here in the valley, did not survive it.”   

Klein believes that, alongside the fact that more businesses are reopening and the public is congregating in larger groups at various locations both indoors and outdoors, large numbers of “essential workers” — who are being continually exposed to the virus at their jobs— reside in those Valley communities listed and are part of the spike.

“They become higher risk to contract COVID. And in these communities, they can live in multi-generational houses that are smaller in scope so [the people] can’t spread out as well,” Klein said. “What we’re seeing is whole families coming down with the COVID-19, and several family members being hospitalized at the same time. We saw it early on in the pandemic, and we’re seeing it again now as things have loosened up and more people are out.”

Echoing that assessment is Dr. Christine Park, a board-certified pediatrician and chief medical officer for the Northeast Valley Health Corporation, which has 17 medical and dental centers in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys including Pacoima, San Fernando, Sun Valley and Van Nuys. 

“Many of our patients are telling us they work in grocery stores, health care facilities, or are caregivers for their own families or in other homes,” Park said. “They’re depending on their jobs to provide their livelihood and they’re continually being exposed.”

“We have definitely seen an increase in patients requesting [COVID-19] tests over the last couple of weeks — 50 more requests per week. And about 15% of the patients we’ve been testing have come back ‘positive.’ For the most part they’ve been coming in on their own; they’ve had symptoms, or they have been exposed to someone who subsequently tested positive.”

Dr. Gina Johnson is the medical director of pediatrics for Northeast Valley Health and is seeing patients by video and in person. She spoke of testing and treating a family while on call at Providence Holy Cross last week.

“We had a mother who was positive and almost everyone in her home was positive, including grandparents and children,” Johnson said. “The baby, fortunately, was not positive.”

“I have another patient who works at a local ice cream shop. He tested positive, and his girlfriend who works at the same shop tested positive. People are asked to wear their masks when they come into [businesses], but they may not. Part of the problem may be ‘pandemic fatigue’; people may not want to have a mask on every moment of every day and want to get outside.”

But the public is entering yet another potential danger zone that could keep raising the number of COVID-19 cases, according to  Klein — the upcoming holiday season, in particular Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“Our fear is, with the weather getting cold, the potential for rain, and the holidays coming, if people aren’t careful we could see a really big spike because you bring a lot of people together indoors,” Klein said.

“It’s much harder to maintain social distancing and prevent the spread of the virus. Thanksgiving is traditionally a time when people gather, and not everybody is going to do their Christmas shopping online. So, again, you’re going to see more people gathering about, and there’s a higher risk of spreading the virus or contracting it.”

There has been some good news, Park said. So far, the addition of this also being flu season has not exponentially expanded the pandemic into dire, unmanageable levels although, Park points out, the flu season is much more impactful from December through February and people could carry both viruses at the same time.

And even with the increased number of cases, Park said, their medical practitioners have not seen or treated a large number of people who are “gravely” ill.

Still, she worries the people are consciously or unconsciously “letting their guard down” because the pandemic has been going on since March.

“It’s difficult to maintain the same practices of continuing to wear masks, and not getting together with groups of people,” the doctor said. “It’s hard to keep up with those strict practices we were doing earlier in the pandemic.”

But that is what people need to do, Park said, in this upcoming holiday season and beyond. Even with the announcement this week of a possible breakthrough of a developed vaccine, there will not be massive amounts of said vaccine immediately available.

“The only way we’re gonna get on the other side of this pandemic is if everyone is working together to protect themselves and protect each other,” Park said.

Klein agreed, reinforcing that the basic forms of protection people have been doing — the wearing of masks, social distancing and frequent hand washing — can “markedly reduce” the risk of contracting the virus.

“COVID-19 is still alive and well,” Klein said. “And it can still have a devastating impact on people’s health.”