LOS ANGELES - Los Angeles County's stay-at-home order will likely be extended until the end of July, unless county health officials see "dramatic change in this virus or in the tools" available to fight COVID-19, Dr. Barbara Ferrer, the county's top public health official, told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.
Ferrer's comments came during a debate over how long a moratorium on evictions should remain in place. She did not directly address the extension of the current public health "Safer-at-Home" order, which is set to expire May 15.
The county began relaxing some of the stay-at-home restrictions on Friday, allowing certain retail stores to reopen for curbside pickup with social distancing and reopening a majority of the county's hiking trails to residents who wore face-coverings and maintained six feet of space from others.
“Our hope is that by using the data, we’d be able to slowly lift restrictions over the next three months,” she said.
The challenge health officials face is that individuals who do not show symptoms have been found to be carriers of the virus, with the ability to infect others without knowing they are doing so. There is also currently no cure or vaccine to protect residents from the virus, and as of Tuesday, LA County has had more than 33,000 cases and reported over 1,600 deaths.
"Based on scientific evidence and best practices, and in the absence of a specific vaccine for, or treatment to prevent COVID19, limiting the chances for close contact between persons is the best and only way to slow the spread of COVID-19 and to protect the public," the county's health order reads.
During Monday's Public Health briefing, Ferrer said that loosening restrictions too quickly "could lead to more people dying." She explained that if the county saw a large spike in case numbers and deaths, the county might have to re-implement some of the restrictions that were being loosened.
“It is still safer to remain at home, COVID-19 has not changed,” she said.
She also explained that some of the county’s dates for phases of reopening might not coincide with those of the state.
“Literally half the cases and half the deaths are happening in LA County right now,” said Ferrer.
County Supervisor Kathryn Barger released a statement Tuesday evening saying that Ferrer's comments were taken out of context, clarifying that the county will continue to loosen restrictions over the next few months, but only in a way that is safe to do so.
"These decisions will be guided by the latest science and data collected. I'm confident that the more our communities continue to comply, the sooner we can resume normalcy," she said.
Ferrer's comments come after Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, warned Congress Tuesday of “really serious” consequences if state and local officials lift stay-at-home orders too quickly. He said it could bring suffering, death and even deeper economic damage.
He told senators that more COVID-19 infections are inevitable as people begin gathering again, but said it all comes down to how prepared communities are.
“There is no doubt, even under the best of circumstances, when you pull back on mitigation you will see some cases appear,” Fauci said.
And if there is a rush to reopen without following guidelines, “my concern is we will start to see little spikes that might turn into outbreaks,” he said. “The consequences could be really serious.”
Fauci said that opening too soon “could turn the clock back,” and that not only would cause “some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery.”
Worldwide, the virus has infected nearly 4.2 million people and killed over 287,000 — more than 80,000 in U.S. alone. Asked if the U.S. mortality count was correct, Fauci said, "the number is likely higher. I don’t know exactly what percent higher but almost certainly it’s higher.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.