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USC Study Finds Coronavirus Far More Widespread In L.A. County Than Reported

Preliminary antibody testing in L.A. County shows thousands more in southern California have already been infected by novel coronavirus.


A new study unveiled Monday from the University of Southern California (USC) with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health discovered infections of the novel Wuhan coronavirus to be far more widespread with a lower fatality rate than initially thought.

The California researchers conducted rapid antibody testing of a representative sample of adults and found that approximately 2.8 to 5.6 percent of L.A. County’s adult population already had coronavirus antibodies present, translating to 221,000 to 442,000 past-infected people. The new estimate dwarfs the nearly 8,000 cases that had been reported at the time the study took place April 10-11. There are now nearly 14,000 confirmed cases of the virus and more than 600 deaths officially reported in the county as of this writing, according to L.A. County Department of Public Health.

“We haven’t known the true extent of COVID-19 infections in our community because we have only tested people with symptoms, and the availability of tests has been limited,” said the study’s lead investigator and USC Professor Neeraj Sood in a statement. “The estimates also suggest that we might have to recalibrate disease prediction models and rethink public health strategies.”

The results of the USC-LA study have yet to be peer-reviewed but illustrate that the new coronavirus is far more prevalent throughout communities than what’s being reported. as new infections continue to sprout from asymptomatic individuals.

“These results indicate that many persons may have been unknowingly infected and at risk of transmitting the virus to others,” said Dr. Barbara Ferrer who serves as the director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

Monday’s study echoes the findings of Stanford researchers who came to a similar conclusion last week after conducting antibody testing further north in Santa Clara County.

Stanford scientists estimate that between 48,000 to 81,000 people had been infected with the virus in the county by early-April, a 50-85-fold increase in the number of publicly confirmed cases with 100 deaths projected by April 22. That lands the fatality rate at 0.12 to 0.2 percent.

While the Stanford study also remains in pre-print awaiting peer-review, the research provides an important glimpse into the true reach of the virus having likely infected far more than publicly known due to lack of testing.

Panic over the novel virus prompted 42 states to issue shelter-in-place orders keeping at least 316 million people home as early estimates depicted a bleak future of overwhelmed hospitals struggling to handle the surging caseload of sick patients. As extreme social distancing measures have successfully flattened the curve in many states, some have announced they will begin easing lockdowns with certain conditions to keep some restrictions in place. The White House released federal non-binding guidelines last week on reopening the American economy. More than 22 million Americans filed for unemployment in just over four weeks.

Governors in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Texas, and South Carolina, each declared they would be lifting stay home orders either on or before April 30th with limited reopenings of local businesses.