LA County Department of Mental Health fights coronavirus discrimination

( MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images )

Worried about discrimination borne of fear over the coronavirus and targeting Chinese and other Asian Americans, county mental health officials said Tuesday they have ramped up outreach and services to affected communities.

Supervisor Janice Hahn said residents in Asian Pacific Islander communities are being harassed for something as simple as wearing a medical mask.

"The coronavirus outbreak is happening on the other side of the globe, but residents here in L.A. County are experiencing discrimination, harassment, bullying and fear because of it," Hahn said.

"L.A. County is making mental health services and information available that I hope will decrease some of this fear and anxiety and give impacted communities the support they need to get through this difficult time."

Despite only one confirmed case of the virus in Los Angeles County, misinformation has fueled anxiety and some xenophobia, Hahn said. She raised concerns that eventually people with symptoms might not come forward out of fear of being shunned or attacked by other residents.

Department of Mental Health Director Dr. Jonathan Sherin provided an update on the agency's efforts.

"This type of situation really challenges us ... as a community," Sherin said.

DMH and the Department of Public Health are coordinating to provide information at community meetings and through media and social media platforms and is also distributing a guide for coping with stress related to an infectious disease outbreak.

Crisis teams will be available as needed for residents and healthcare workers stigmatized due to the virus, as well as those who may have lost family members, according to Sherin's update to the board.

DPH Director Barbara Ferrer assured the board that a public health nurse has been assigned to every returning traveler with potential exposure to the virus, and reminded residents that any quarantine need only last for two weeks.

"The incubation period is, at its longest, 14 days," Ferrer said.    

In addition to concerns about discrimination, residents are worried about extended family in China.

"The separation issues are way bigger than we have acknowledged," Ferrer told the board.

Foreign nationals are no longer allowed to enter the U.S. if they have traveled to or live in China, keeping some families apart from loved ones with little information.

More than 75,000 cases are confirmed worldwide and more than 2,000 people have died. There are 29 cases in the U.S. -- including 14 people flown back from a quarantined cruise ship -- and eight in California.

No one in the U.S. has died as a result of the virus, however, one American died at a hospital in Wuhan, the epicenter of the disease in China.

The Department of Mental Health's 24/7 hotline can be reached at 800-854-7771.