Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Desert, participated in a Facebook Live Q&A with Desert Sun reporter Mark Olalde and Executive Editor Julie Makinen on Wednesday, answering questions from readers about coronavirus, stay-at-home orders, and the economic impact.
Among the key issues Ruiz addressed:
- Why are golf courses closed?
- Do I need to wear a mask in my car?
- What kinds of loans can I get, and what’s the hangup?
- Will we see a fall spike of coronavirus cases?
Following is a transcript of the conversation. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Isn’t it overkill to shut down golf courses?
Ruiz: Hello everyone, I’m congressman Dr. Raul Ruiz. I’m here with the fantastic team at The Desert Sun and I’m going to ask Mark to kick us off.
Olalde: Thanks congressman and thank you everyone for staying safe during the pandemic, reading The Desert Sun and joining us today. My name is Mark Olade, I’m a reporter with The Desert Sun. Today I’m joined by Representative Ruiz and Julie Makinen who is the executive editor over at The Desert Sun. Representative Ruiz, thank you for joining us and speaking with the public today.
Our conversation today is about the 2 million people around the world who have been infected by the coronavirus; the WHO (World Health Organization) has labeled this as a global health pandemic. More than 125,000 people have died, including 25,000 in the United States. California has been under a stay-at-home order since March, while Congress is trying to figure out a stimulus package as millions of people file for unemployment.
Graciously, the representative and Julie have agreed to take public questions, which I have been fielding and curating over the past few days. So let’s start with some of these questions that have been coming in from readers around the area. We’ll start with you, Dr. Ruiz. Phil asks: Isn’t it real overkill by shutting down all golf courses?
This is something we’ve been hearing a lot about at the newspaper; we’ve been dealing with letters and questions on this issue. Can you speak to this … but also just generally about why certain establishments are open and closed. Also what social distancing really means and how important social distancing is and keeping certain business closed or open?
Ruiz: Thank you for that question. Let me first start by saying thank you to you Mark and to Julie for putting this together and really promoting this. There’s a lot of questions and anxiety out there. We have an unprecedented situation with unprecedented hardships in our country. Not only for those that are victims of COVID-19, but also those who are suffering through the stay-at-home and the precautions that are necessary to help keep everyone safe. I too have received lots of questions about why certain businesses are open, why they are not open, what is deemed an essential business and what is not essential.
There are a lot of people who are going through tremendous hardships who want to be able to go hike but the hiking trails are closed. They want to go to Joshua Tree, but Joshua Tree closed. There’s a lot of different park systems that have some parks and some hiking trails open and some are closed. So I know that creates also a sense of confusion out there in terms of what is possible and what is not possible. I thank The Desert Sun for always reporting when those closures are happening and also reporting which trails are also open, to give people a sense of clarity.
The idea here is that the virus needs a host to live. The concern is what makes the coronavirus different than the influenza virus that produces the flu is that 25% of those infected are asymptomatic; that is according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) director. That means that, unlike the flu, where we know we have very good parameters and understanding that when people are symptomatic and how long the symptoms stay afterward someone is infected so we can control that.
We don’t have those safety measures here, so somebody who could feel perfectly fine perfectly healthy, who wants to go out and and exercise, they may too be infectious, infected and infectious. So that’s why, in the absence of a vaccine, the best way to — and the only way right now —to con trol this is by separating physically so that this virus isn’t able to transfer from one person to another person, because even though that other person may be asymptomatic when they’re infectious.
They may live with somebody older than 65, or they may live with a child with asthma or they may live with somebody who has very difficult controlled diabetes and therefore, they can get severely ill. As well as going into a hospital where you put at risk the front line workers, the doctor, the nurse, the janitorial service and the people that serve the patients’ food at the hospitals. We already have a nationwide shortage of protective gear. So we’re putting people at risk.
Look, this is what I can say, we’re all in this together. If we had a way to completely isolate a golfer, on the golf course, then I think that would be something that we would have to problem-solve. But what happens in these golf courses is that you have people who work in the pro shop. You have people who then get on the golf cart, you have people that the caddy helped move, that helped carry the golf clubs as well and you have people who work on maintenance and then you have people who serve drinks at the club. And so how would you enforce protecting the workers in these very nice country clubs in order to have one person there ride their own cart, move around the different areas and so that’s where I think the complexity is.
I’m a very outdoorsy person and you know I had plans to take my daughters out for a family camping trip, in April, at Joshua Tree. And I know that if we go completely by ourselves, and there’s nobody around, then, you know, we’re staying within the family. But right now, the order in Joshua Tree National Park is that they’re closed, because if you open it, you’ll have more people coming together congregating and and touching the common spots where everybody touches. So for the safety of everybody, the county has seen these recreational type facilities like gyms — there’s a lot of gyms, that are closed that people are really trying to figure out how to maintain their health during this difficult time. My wife and I are among those as well. So, I think that those are very strong considerations as to why nonessential businesses are closed right now.
Do I need a mask while dog walking or driving?
Olalde: I have a question that a reader in Palm Springs sent us. He says, if you’re walking your dog in a residential area and if he stays 10 feet away from others, is it necessary to wear a mask? You know there’s a lot of confusion around masks and face coverings. To clear the air a little bit, do you know what sort of masks are best? When should we be wearing them? If we’re driving?
Ruiz: Absolutely. So, the safest masks, which we really desperately need for the doctors, nurses and hospital workers who are taking care of COVID-19 patients, are the N95s. They’re very specific types of masks; they fold well over your nose, and your cheeks, and it provides the best protection. The problem is that we don’t have enough N95 masks for our healthcare workers — not only in hot spots in New York City, and others, but also here locally. I get called by hospital leaders that tell me that they will run out of masks within a certain time and they’re trying to problem-solve and trying to figure out where they’re going to get their next batch.
I get calls from nurses who are very anxious about their heightened risk and being an asymptomatic carrier and bringing it home to their children and their families. So, initially, the idea was: If you are not taking care of a sick patient with COVID-19, don’t wear a mask, they were trying to conserve and prioritize those (N95) masks for those that are caregivers. The other concern, and one of the reasonings they gave behind that, was that if you’re wearing an ill-fitting mask and you’re constantly having to fidget, then you’re putting yourself at risk by touching your face.
We know that you can carry the virus on your skin. If you touch something that had the virus, and then you put it on your face, then it gets closer to your eyes, nose and mouth, which are the entryways, causing the infection of COVID-19. So, initially … the message was the N95 masks, the surgical mask, were for hospital personnel who were taking care of actively sick patients, the nursing home, individuals or individuals at home taking care of somebody who have cold-like symptoms. … Now we’re at a different point. Now we’re starting to see the rapid rise of transmission of the coronavirus exponentially. And now we want to make sure that we increase the healthcare capacity, so that doctors aren’t exposed to COVID-19 as much as they’re being exposed in New York City. So now they’re saying, well, let’s shift gears and let’s encourage people to wear masks.
But not the N95 or surgical type masks; leave those for the health care providers. And so, if you don’t have access to N95 masks, what kind of masks can you wear? The more protective masks have a more dense weave, or more obstruction of air coming out and air coming in. Now masks are designed not necessarily to protect you from getting the virus, as much as it is to [prevent] you from sharing the virus or transmitting the virus yourself.
Recent studies are showing that even when you talk, you’re spitting, for lack of a better word, these tiny particles of spit and saliva, that can carry the virus, and those viral droplets or tiny particles can mass in the air even longer than was thought initially with a cough and sneeze.
Initially, they did studies where if you sneezed, they followed the particles of air drops, and [the virus] could linger in the air for about 10 seconds. Now, they’re showing that these tinier particles can linger in the air for minutes, if not nearly an hour. And so you have to think, okay well if it lingers in the air for that long, and then, if you have a wind, or any other type of factor in the air, that can move (the particles), then there’s no clear black or white science behind well, the distance of an individual, do I wear a mask or not wear a mask.
So, to simplify things, I think that right now the county order is, if you’re outside, wear a mask and keep in mind that you don’t want to spread (coronavirus) to somebody else. If you see somebody, if they’re within viewing range … put a mask on. If you’re in the grocery store, please wear a mask for the essential workers that are there. And for people that are at the counters and the clerks and everybody. If you’re in any store any essential business please wear a mask.
The question about whether you’re in your own car if you roll up your window and you’re all by yourself. You don’t necessarily have to wear a mask when you’re in your own spot. But what I would say is that it would be very important that you use disinfectant wipes, and you have a type of hand sanitizer in your car, because when you’re out of your car, you’re touching products, you’re touching money and touching other things that other people touch. So when you get in your car, if you want to keep your car as your disinfected bubble, then make sure that as you get in you use hand sanitizer. And then you frequently disinfect the steering wheel, the gearshift, the counters, the knobs too.
Olalde: Definitely use those disinfecting wipes to clean your car and clean your handles and everything. Please don’t flush them down the toilet. Because then the rest of the taxpayers will be footing the bill for new pumps and water systems because (water districts are) already starting to have some troubles.
Ruiz: The best way, and the cheapest way, to really be disinfected from the virus is to use running water and soap. What I do as soon as I walk in my house, I wash my hands with soap and water. In fact, after work, I go straight to the bathroom. I put my clothes into a hamper and I take a shower. And then I come out and my daughters just completely attack me, they jump on me, they love me they kiss me and we have our usual daddy comes home from work moment after I wash up, and protect my family from the virus.
Is the media profiting off the coronavirus?
Olalde: I want to kick it over to Julie for a second. Julie…there’s a common misconception that gets thrown around … that the media really profits off terrible events like the virus. But at the same time, there (many) stories about the pandemic are not behind a paywall. And we’re seeing 30,000 journalists around the country ether furloughed, laid off or otherwise taking pay cuts during this pandemic. Can you help people realize what’s going on in the media, what it means for our industry and for the ability to cover these types of issues going forward?
Makinen: Thanks Mark and thanks Dr. Ruiz for being with us. I think we in the media industry are feeling the economic effects as many industries are. We survive primarily on advertising. And, you know, when there are … very few restaurants open, when there aare very few events happening, there’s much less to advertise. So our advertising base has dropped precipitously. I think in March we were down about maybe 30%, and the projections for April and May are even more dire. Our parent company, Gannett, has decided to furlough almost all workers, one week per month for April May and June. That means that at any given time, you know, our newsroom has 25% fewer people in it.
We’re each taking a week of unpaid leave and that makes it really challenging. While we have seen an increase in online traffic, we are making most of those stories available for free as a public service. We’re asking people to subscribe, even if it’s just a digital subscription. But those don’t add up to many dollars. A digital subscription might cost $4.99 a month; some introductory rates are as low as 99 cents a month, so we need an awful lot of subscribers to make up for the lost advertising. So, if you are seeing value in The Desert Sun or another local media property and local newspaper, I would encourage you to think about starting a digital subscription because really every dollar is important, especially at this time.
Ruiz: I just want to piggyback on that and say that there’s been some polls out there, asking the question, which source of information do you trust the most? And it’s the local source of news, where people really go to get more accurate information and that they trust. So I think it’s very important that we keep local news alive and healthy and well to be able to bring clarity to a lot of the confusion that is out there.
Makinen: This pandemic has been experienced in different ways around the country. We definitely need the national coverage, CNN or MSNBC or, you know, any of those national-level media outlets clearly have a role to play in covering the White House and Congress and all that. But CNN is not going to cover Riverside County. It’s not going to cover the Coachella Valley. It’s not going to tell you how many ICU beds we have available at Eisenhower and Desert Regional. It’s not going to tell you, you know, about the Palm Springs City Council and what they’re doing. We provide the local perspective and I hope that that’s valuable to people.
I’m a business owner and have heard zero on my loan application. What to do?
Olalde: I want to kick it back to Representative Ruiz, asking him a little bit about these large stimulus packages. We’re talking billions of dollars. I’ve got a question from Thomas Pendergast in Palm Springs. He wrote… I’m a small business owner in Palm Springs and I applied for the Small Business Association disaster loan and Paycheck Protection Program loan. I haven’t heard a single thing from them. What do I do next? As our congressman what can you be doing to help? … Can you talk a little bit about what Coachella valley small business owners should be doing to keep their businesses. And what should people do when they experience delays like Thomas mentioned?
Ruiz: I think it’s terrible what the pandemic has done to our local communities and our businesses. We’re hearing that there have been some fixtures within our community that we rely on that or part of our family. That are at the brink of going bankrupt and it just breaks my heart and I know that that the small business owners view their employees, like family. And so, it breaks their heart when they have to lay people off or are going to furlough and have to make tough decisions on trying to do everything possible to keep them on their paycheck.
This was something that Congress identified very early on. And, and there were some provisions within the different bills and three different bills … that would bring support for small businesses. Let’s talk about those and then let’s talk about the different pathways to get those, because they’re in the last CARES Act. There was $355 billion for small business; that’s a substantial amount of money, but we know that we’re going to need more very, very soon. And there’s two big categories, two big programs, there’s the Paycheck Protection Plan. And then there’s the economic impact disaster loan known as EDIL. And they’re administered differently.
The Paycheck Protection Plan is administered through the private banks … credit unions, etc. And usually, those are the bigger banks that get a lot of the money because they have the administrative capacity to administer the applications. There’s about $10 billion available within loans to businesses in that program. And the idea there was that if a small business, meaning those that employ, less than 500 are able to spend 75% of that of their money of that loan on payroll and 25% of that money on overhead and keep their employees on their payroll for eight weeks, then that loan is essentially a grant. So it’s money that the small businesses will not have to pay back, if they can meet those parameters.
Now, how do you get that loan? You have to check with your bank. That’s not run through the Small Business Administration; you have to go and ask your bank if they receive the loans to be able to administer them to those small businesses. So you have to apply through your bank, and it’s the bank that keeps you informed as to the status of your loan.
Now, there are some problems with this scenario, because these large banks are only providing those loans too people who already have established (accounts). That means that if you’re a small business, and you don’t have access, if you didn’t have a contract or an account with one of the banks in your area, then it’s going to be difficult for you to open a new account with a bank that is part of this program.
So, with this next bill, Democrats are really pushing that at least $250 billion more that the Senate majority leader wants to add — which we’re full agreement with that — at least half … go towards the smaller community banks. And that’s important because we know that rural communities, and women-owned businesses, and minority-owned businesses and veteran-owned businesses, in larger proportions, use smaller community banks so we want to make sure that every small business has access to those loans. That’s the payment Protection Plan program.
Now you have the economic impact disaster loan. That actually is run through the Small Business Administration, and you can get up to $2 million per business in that loan. In addition to that, you can get a $10,000 advance as part of that loan. That is not a loan-to-grant type scenario; that’s actually a low-interest rate loan. The good news, though, is that if you can apply to both programs, and if you get the loan from the payment protection plan, then you can convert your EDIL loan into the Payment Protection Plan, and therefore, that loan can be a grant, as long as it’s administered through the Payment Protection Plan program as well.
Now, there’s a lot of issues with the rollout of these loans. The system was overwhelmed, the website crashed. We had a Facebook town hall with some small business loan experts and Natalie Orta who runs the Palm Desert satellite office where they talked about the situation to what individuals can do so I really recommend that people who have this question to go back. Last week we held this Facebook town hall to listen on what those recommendations are, but if you apply through your PPP program that is administered through the banks, if you apply for the EDIL program that’s through the Small Business Administration, and if you received a confirmation number, then you are in the queue.
So rest assured that your application has been entered. Now in getting information back, there’s several things you can do. One of the things that I realized early on when I got elected was that the nearest Small Business Administration for my district was way out in Los Angeles. … I worked very hard to get a small business administration office here, the only one in the Inland Empire, right here in the Coachella Valley. And so it’s fortunate to have this small business administration office in Palm Desert, and Natalie Orta is doing an incredible job. We’ll connect you with Natalie, she will call you back to problem- solve and figure out if it’s in the queue, to give you reassurance. You can also call the one 1-800 Small Business Administration hotline. The regional website, it also provides information Small Business Administration program out of the Orange County headquarters, that has control over this entire region. And you can also call my office directly at 760-424-8888, and we’ll lead you to the Palm Desert office, and to the Orange County headquarters for very specific questions.
What’s being done to help nonprofit organizations?
Olalde: Someone is asking about nonprofits and assistance specifically for nonprofits and a lot of different organizations. NGOs, community-based organizations, faith-based organizations are really stepping up and playing a big role in kind of keeping individuals and families going. …Can you talk about any financial assistance or loan forgiveness specifically targeted to the nonprofit world or in phase four or phase five?
Ruiz: There are nonprofits who work on meal deliveries, like Meals on Wheels, or a nonprofit that helps distribute the SNAP program, the food assistance programs and nonprofits, like the food bank, that are working to distribute food for the community. The previous bills provide billions of dollars to help prop up those nonprofits directly.
However, you have nonprofits like the churches, or United Way or others that really rely on large gatherings .. that provide their fundraising revenue. And they’ve taken a big hit because of the stay-at-home orders and the cancellation of their normal fundraising mechanisms. So, these EDIL loans can also apply to nonprofits. There are questions about, you know, who’s the owner and having to answer certain questions. I think that the nonprofit community can look into who they can designate, whether it’s the president of the board or the CEO, and then they can also get those kinds of loan support with the same requirements that the other small businesses look at.
In addition to that, there are ideas moving forward in the next congressional bill that will help give relief to some of the larger nonprofits and even smaller nonprofits in expanding access to care or even some forgiveness of certain bills, overhead costs and other things but, you know, these are very, tough moments for a lot of nonprofits who aren’t collecting the normal donations that they get through their membership or people.
So for those who have saved money for a rainy day, and can give a little extra, I think this is a good moment to look at the community organizations who really have brought a lot of value to your life and to your communities, and really help prop them up. Just like, perhaps you may order takeout to help your favorite restaurant … perhaps this is the moment to give a little extra to your churches or a little more support for your synagogue or your mosque or for your nonprofit so they can continue to provide the value of services that nonprofits provide in our communities.
What help is there for freelancers or gig workers?
Olalde: I’ve spent maybe half of my time as a journalist as a freelancer. That’s a segment of the economy that often gets overlooked because … the paperwork isn’t as set up; it’s not the same structure as a business. … We’re talking about millions of workers here, whether it’s freelance writers, whether it’s Uber and Lyft drivers, whatever it might be with this kind of gig economy. What about them? What’s the major step to protect them?
Ruiz: Well, the CARES Act amplified the unemployment insurance and made those that are self-employed, those that work in the gig economy, eligible for unemployment insurance. So, they are able to apply for unemployment insurance as well.
And there’s a way that they look at their average income in the last month to determine the amount of payment that they’re going to get, on top of what the state gives. They can get that amount extra. You know the folks who are on unemployment will get whatever the state gives them plus $600 a week due to this pandemic from the CARES Act. So there’s the ability for those who are self-employed who are dealing with financial hardship to apply for unemployment insurance. And today, I got the news that the portal for them to start applying is being worked on and should be — and I should very cautiously because this is really out of my hands and out of my control, this is all run through the administration — but I’m hearing that their target date to start this portal for those that are self-employed will be opened in two weeks. And I know, it’s two weeks too late for those who are suffering economically, but that’s the news that I got actually this morning.
Who’s getting federal aid and why? What are the politics?
Olalde: One more federal question for you, it’s from a reader, Jane Walters in La Quinta. She asked very simply: What’s included in the fourth stimulus? And I just want to add one more bit to that. You know there’s been a lot of controversy surrounding who gets bailouts, who gets money, we’re talking about trillions — a lot of money. And you know, the airline industry, the fossil fuel industry … they’re obviously large job suppliers, but a lot of people are frustrated that they have been singled out for getting special attention from whether it’s Congress or administration. So can you talk about, best-case scenario, what do you get in the fourth stimulus package, and can you talk to that debate a little bit over whether or not we should be bailing out certain industries? What’s the politickng and the decision making that goes into figuring out who gets what money at that level?
Ruiz: Great. I’ll give you the behind the scenes conversation that’s happening. Mind you, Congress is functioning to the best of its ability without being able to be together and holding hearings. The Congressional role, there’s two roles. One is to write the bills, and the laws, and the administration’s role is to implement those laws, though, with the intent that Congress wrote them. And then the second role that Congress has is to provide oversight on the way the administration is implementing the laws in order to ensure that it’s done effectively, efficiently, under the auspices of the intent of the law.
And of course, if there’s any disagreement, then the Supreme Court can come in and weigh in, in terms of how the law was written and what the intent was originally intended for and then, you know, we respect the Supreme Court and not politicize them, then we accept their decision and move on, and try to work in other means.
But here’s what we’re doing right now in terms of moving the ball forward for the next step. The news I got again, breaking news is Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and Sen.(Joe) Manchin (D-West Virginia) are the two senators working directly with the White House to negotiate the next package. Majority Leader (Mitch) McConnell has sort of sidelined himself — since he takes the orders from the White House anyway — to let the White House figure it out with the Senate Democrats, and then he’ll just accept whatever the White House tells him to accept and.
And so, right now, this is the debate. Sen. McConnell wants to push $250 billion more into the small business loan program because there was such a rapid rise in utilization and application. Democrats are in agreement with that. The caveat is that the Democrats have identified that there are many small businesses, especially veteran-owned businesses, women-owned businesses, minority-owned businesses, and businesses that work in rural areas, underserved areas, and micro-businesses that don’t have the ability to add new contracts with these banks who are administrating these larger loans through the Paycheck Protection Plan.
So Democrats are pushing that half of that $250 billion will be extended to new community-based smaller banks to allow more small businesses access to the money. So that’s one of the things that they’re advocating for, that they’re negotiating. In addition to that, we’re realizing that some of the harder-hit areas, the counties and cities and the state, have also rapidly used the money that they’ve been designated for in the early CARES Act. So we want to augment that fund, before we get to the point where they run out of that money and they have wait for a new bill to get passed.
So that’s another account that we want to fill in before it runs out. The second account is adding another .. that’s $125 billion on top of the $250 billion for small businesses. The other account that Democrats are really pushing to augment is the account that goes to our frontline workers. Because we’re seeing that they’re still struggling to get tests. They’re still struggling to get PPEs. They’re still struggling to keep their doors open because of the cancellation of nonelective procedures and surgeries; the primary care offices are being closed or not seeing as many patients because they don’t want to expose their patients to other sick patients (those that work in hospitals, etc.).
So, Democrats want to add another $100 billion to that account for our frontline workers. That’s where the disagreement is. The Senate Republicans have said, we don’t want to add more money to those accounts; we don’t want to change the current structures of the PPP program; Democrats are saying add this because those accounts are being used really fast, let’s reinforce them now, before they hit rock bottom. And so that’s where the negotiations are happening. And I support the augmentation of healthcare workers. I support the $250 billion. I support having $125 billion opened up to community banks to add more nonprofits and more small businesses who don’t have established accounts with the larger banks, (giving them) access to this money.
And I definitely support reinforcing cities and counties with extra monies — those that have taken not only a loss but that are running now on their emergency funds and getting very close to going bankrupt.
Now your other question regarding the bailouts — that’s a term that that is very politicized. Let’s keep in mind that when the CARES Act was first proposed in the Senate, it was a bill that Democrats did not accept, period, because it was a bill that basically would give (Treasury) Secretary Steven Mnuchin $500 billion, that upon his request, had no transparency. He would basically give it to whichever industry, whichever company he wanted, without the requirement of having to report who’s asking, or who’s getting it, and how they’re using that money — whether they’re using it to beef up their employees or whether they’re using it for stock buybacks and for the paychecks of CEOs and others. And, you know, Democrats just went ape shit over that.
They said there is absolutely no way we’re going to accept it. And so, by blocking that, they added the small business loans, the hospital money; they added the unemployment insurance money; they added the stimulus check monies. And then for that $500 billion, they also added as many safety protections as possible. So … they said that it had to be transparent. In real-time we have to know who’s asking and how much money they’re getting. That there’s a ban on using the money for stock buybacks, and that it should go towards keeping their workers in the workforce.
And they also added this caveat where the president, the members of his cabinet, and the senators and members of Congress cannot use that money in their own businesses, and in their own industries. So that part had some protection.
Now whether we should help big large industries stay open? I think that that we know that we need the airline industry for commerce, for our ability to travel for essential business, for essential work, and I think during this pandemic, it’s very important that we keep industries who provide essential services for us to weather this storm, that they weather the storm. For example, our mail service. We rely now on receiving packages into our homes, if we can’t go out to shop or to purchase goods. For example, if you’re diabetic with, with COPD on 100% oxygen at home, and you’re 72 years old, then it might not be the safest for you to get out of your house at all during this period and go to the pharmacy to pick up your medicine. So you might want them delivered to your house. And so we need to help our United States Postal Service to help them with their bottom line so they can keep that essential service open. as well as the grocery stores, who deliver our food and the grocery workers that are working. They’re putting themselves at risk to allow us the capacity to purchase our groceries in order to eat.
What’s the role of the press during the pandemic?
Olalde: I want go over really quickly to Julie while .. .we’ve got a few more minutes here and I want to get your thoughts on the points the representative was making. … He was talking about the need to ensure that someone —whether it’s the GAO or [the media] or an oversight committee in Congress — who is reporting on where the heck this money is going and to make sure that it’s not just (stock) buybacks, but it’s employee salaries and things like that. Julie Can you talk about the role of the press right now … in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic?
Makinen: Well, it’s kind of what it always should be, which is holding the powerful to account. Some of that is retrospective; we had an article in The Desert Sun this past weekend about why wasn’t California more prepared, and trying to explain that, the decision-making that went into disbanding some of the preparation programs for pandemic planning. A lot of that was based out of the Great Recession
And some budgetary choices that were made. But, you know, helping people understand why we were not prepared perhaps as we would have liked to be for this. And then there’s the real time (accountability). .. what supplies do we have now? How many ICU beds are available? Do we need more? How many tests are being done? And I think that’s the phase we’re in right now, trying every day to ask these questions, and hold people accountable.
One of the big questions we’ve been struggling with in the newsroom is trying to figure out exactly how many people are being tested. And this is such an important question A) to find out, so we know, what is the positive rate — out of 100,000 people tested, these many people have (coronavirus). That gives us an idea of really how serious is the problem? We still don’t have good numbers on that. And so trying to hold county officials and others who are responsible for administering these tests to provide that information, right? And that will also lead us to the path of how do we get out of this? Well, we have to have enough testing per capita to allow us to start reopening. And until we know that, we’re not going to get there.
So right now … it’s real-time holding people accountable and asking those questions, day by day. And then there’s going to be the aftermath, right? Like once things start to get back to normal, how was this money spent? Who got it? Who benefited from it? Who got shut out and how did that happen? So there’s kind of a looking backward, there’s a looking now, and then there will be a phase, in the future, where we kind of try to take stock of all this. And it’s a lot do at any given time, for sure.
Ruiz: And on top of that, you don’t have the staff that you usually rely on, so you really have to pick and choose which angle you’re going to cover right?
Makinen: Absolutely. I could use three times as many people as I have right now, we would still be overwhelmed with the number of questions we’re trying to answer for readers. We’re getting a lot of questions, daily, not just for this Q&A, but daily. Mark, I know you have sort of a lot of questions backlogged, do you want to do a lightning round where we give sort of brief answers to as many questions as we can in the last 10 minutes or so?
I was sick back in autumn. Could it have been coronavirus?
Olalde: Let’s jump to those. Rep. Ruiz, I want to pick your brain a little bit as a doctor, and give whatever caveats here you need. … One reader wrote in to ask: If they were sick with flu-like symptoms in October, November, was that the coronavirus?
Ruiz: So there are two questions that I would ask that patient. One is, did you have the flu shot. I mean, yes, did you have the flu shot and did you get the flu test to determine if it was the flu? If you had a flu test and it was positive for the flu then it was the flu. In the absence of those or if you were sick and you tested negative for the flu, then your chances that it was the coronavirus goes up. The only way to tell for certain is by doing an antibody test. So, if you have antibodies to coronavirus, then you know that you were exposed to coronavirus, at that point. Otherwise, you just simply don’t know. And if you don’t know, then I would assume you did not have it. You are not protected and (you should) take all the precautionary measures that you can.
Olalde: The virus has been around a little bit but really gained notoriety towards the end of last year. We know started coming to the US with travelers.
Ruiz: Oh, your question was in November, that they were sick in November. Well, we know that that the virus started out of a specific wet market in Wuhan, China, in December. So, if you were sick in November, then no it was not the coronavirus.
Do dead bodies of coronavirus victims pose a risk?
Olalde: If someone dies who had the virus is it still in their body once they die? Does that mean we should do burials differently, or do cremations rather than traditional burials?
Ruiz: The virus needs an active cell with energy to reproduce itself. So if the cell in the body is dead, not getting oxygen or producing energy then the virus cannot reproduce itself, and the virus will die. However, if there was virus on the body, the virus could stay on the body like it would stay on the surface of your counter. There are no studies to determine how long it stays, but usually, when a person passes away there’s a process where they’re not necessarily exposed and if they’re known to have COVID-19, there’s a process to disinfect the body and it … it wouldn’t last on the body for more than like maybe an hour, I’m assuming here, based on what I’ve known in the literature. But, but don’t quote me but, for maybe one or two days and that’s about it. So, .. I still think that there’s a way that you can do a burial, and not have to cremate a loved one, but again it’s a very personal decision between the family.
If I was sick, but feel OK now, should I be tested?
Olalde: Let’s assume someone — you or somebody in your household — has symptoms that line up with coronavirus but testing is a bit slow. You self-quarantined for several weeks, do you need to get tested if you’ve overcome the symptoms?
Ruiz: In the ideal world, if we had a lot of tests that were available, then I would say yes, go get tested, because you want to know if you have it. Because if you have it, then you could still be infectious, even though you’re asymptomatic. We still don’t know yet how long you’re infectious after you had it. And those studies are still ongoing. And like I said, to know if you had it, you’d have to take an antibody test. Right now, it’s assumed that between getting the infection and being symptomatic, it’s about nine days. So that’s why they have the quarantine for two weeks. Right now, if you’ve been sick, and haven’t been tested, and you’re asymptomatic, I would follow all the precautions that the county has given: Wear a mask, stay home as much as possible and stay within your unit inside your household.
Are we going to see a surge of COVID-19 in the fall?
Olalde: Two more quick questions for you. In the fall, are we going to see a second spike in coronavirus cases?
Ruiz: Yes, we are. The virus is not going away. Even though our graphs and our numbers show that, that we may be slowing the rate increase of transmission, and even if that rate starts to decrease and we’re on the downslope, it doesn’t mean that the virus is gone. The virus is still around because we know that 25% of those that are infected are asymptomatic. So and plus, there are some studies that are showing that it may have a seasonal component. So once the fall comes, the virus may be more abundant in concentrated form. And people will get more infected. That’s why, knowing that information, we can’t just arbitrarily open non-essential businesses or go back to a life as normal. We have to create the criteria and the safety measures, so that we can contain the virus, once we start seeing new cases. and that criteria is 1) We have to make sure our hospitals are equipped to handle another surge. 2) We have to make sure we have widespread amount of diagnostic tests and antibody serology tests. And 3) We have to make sure that our county has the capacity to identify, to isolate, to quarantine and contain the virus, and we’ve, got to do it in a gradual fashion. Because it is very possible that we have the virus coming back, and it causes another widespread surge, if we don’t have those checkpoints in place.
Why is the United States so far behind on testing?
Olalde: Final question for you and I want to hold your feet to the fire. Today we’re talking a lot about testing. We’re not talking a lot of numbers though; we don’t seem to have, like Julie said, we don’t have great data on this, especially locally. What we do know is as recently as two weeks ago, countries like Germany and Italy and South Korea were testing their populations at twice the rate as the U.S. Why have we been so far behind on testing? And, and why locally don’t we have great numbers.
Ruiz: You know, Mark, that was the question I asked Secretary Azar, Vice President Pence, and the White House Task Force on March, 5, when they had a briefing for members of Congress and I stood up and I asked the question and I said, 1) why don’t we have drive-through massive testing like South Korea and 2) why aren’t we purchasing tests from South Korea and other countries and bringing them in, in massive quantities immediately? This was one of the greatest dilemmas, and retrospectively when we start investigating what went wrong, we’re going to realize that it didn’t have to be this way.
Recently, I was interviewed by the L.A. Times and they did a video looking at South Korea’s model. They took this virus seriously. They massively produced tests. In their containment phase, they were checking people to see if they had fevers. They were doing surveillance, random testing in the community with drive-throughs, and in the businesses, and other locations, and they had the person power to really identify who was sick and have the capacity to put them in hotel rooms or keep them quarantined. So they didn’t have to have a stay-at-home policy. They didn’t have to shut down their businesses like we did here in the United States, and they’re not suffering the economic toll as we are here. So it didn’t have to be this way in the United States, either. South Korea had it right, and they were aggressive early on. They mass-produced tests, and they worked on it. So, I didn’t get a very clear answer on March 5, other than they didn’t want to contradict what the president was saying at that time, which was that they had it under control, that this would go away, and that there was no reason to be concerned.
And I can see that turmoil that they had in saying, oh, man, do we give a different message than our boss is giving? And that caused a lot of distress and a lot of problems in the communication aspects of what they’re dealing with and it still does.
So 1) I’ve sent a letter, I’ve been speaking with Republican senators and members of Congress to try to really influence the administration to fully comprehensibly use the Defense Production Act — they just announced their very first contract with GM last week. It’s too little too late, but we still can massively get many industries, many companies, to massively produce the products that we need. In addition to that, I’m calling on them to have a federal command coordinating system to build trust in the country so we can move products around, as well as help the states, not have to outbid each other, and local hospitals from outbidding other local hospitals to get supplies into our local area. That way the federal government and its capacity to mobilize the industry to shift and move PPE where we need them.
And then finally, and this goes back to Julie’s point, is that we need transparency. Leadership in crisis means consistent communication that’s clear, concise and very credible focusing on science and facts, and we need that in all levels of government. Not just the federal government administration, but we need them in the state administration, and we also need them in the county and with local leaders. I’m making myself as available as I possibly can to answer questions in what I can or can’t do.
We need the county to be able to provide information about testing and their sources and when they’re going low, or resource utilization maps so we can allow The Desert Sun and other press outlets to ask real-time questions, and answer and follow up and do more in-depth service investigation with transparency. So we can have clarity in what the real situation is. And I’m an advocate for that, and I’ve been calling on the county and the other state agencies to provide more explanationss, and open up the information with transparency. Because clarity brings health and safety to our constituents.