LOS ANGELES — As Los Angles County closes in on 9,000 reported COVID-19 cases and 265 deaths, a huge unknown remains here and across the nation: How bad is it?
With a population of 10 million, larger than those of more than 40 states, the county is a prime location to launch a large-scale study that aims to answer that question and learn more about antibodies that could potentially provide immunity from COVID-19, the disease associated with the coronavirus, according to public health and policy experts.
The findings could help shape strategies to get the U.S. economy going again, said researchers at the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy, which is conducting the study with the Los Angeles County Public Health Department.
The first set of tests on 900 people were conducted Friday and Saturday at six drive-thru locations and will continue every two weeks for the foreseeable future, researchers said.
Although public health officials have been providing daily updates about numbers of cases, deaths, hospitalizations and tests, those figures could be “the tip of the iceberg,” said Dr. Neeraj Sood, vice dean of research at the Price School.
“We’ve just been testing the sick. So we truly don’t know the true extent of the bulk of the population that might have covered,” Sood said of the 45,000 people tested in Los Angeles County outside the study. “There might be many people in the population that were asymptomatic and they survived it. So having those people in the calculation will help us truly figure out how deadly this epidemic is.”
USC is also working with Stanford University and UCLA on a similar study in Santa Clara County, where 3,000 people were tested, Sood said. The findings should be published soon, he said.
As news about the study spreads, many people are volunteering to participate. In an email to researchers, the wife of a first responder said she wanted her husband tested.
“I want to hug my husband when he comes back home, but I don’t know whether to do that or not because he’s been out in the field,” she wrote, “he could potentially be exposed to COVID and I don’t know if I have the antibodies or not, I don’t know if my kids should.”
Researchers say they hope their findings can shed light on just how deadly COVID-19 is, when the spread might end and the effectiveness of strategies like social distancing and wearing masks.