The day after Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered indoor services to immediately cease across the state in restaurants, wineries and certain other businesses, as well as the shuttering of all bars, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors received an update from staff on COVID-19 at a board meeting on Tuesday.
“We’ve seen increasing disease rates in Calaveras County, as well as statewide, and that’s putting us in a little bit of a difficult position right now as coronavirus cases continue to expand,” Calaveras County Health Officer Dean Kelaita, MD, said. “Cases have increased by 40% in Calaveras County since the beginning of July – just in the last two weeks alone.”
All counties in California are currently being monitored by the state using a series of metrics on disease progression, Kelaita said. In each county, the metrics are given grades of “less concerning,” “moderately concerning,” or “more concerning.”
“As these metrics increase it’s threatening to overwhelm our ability to do contact tracing, to maintain the stability of our local hospital care system, and it places our county at risk for inclusion on what’s called the State Monitoring List, which mandates further social and business sector closures,” he said. “There’s uncontrolled community person-to-person transmission of COVID-19 reported in multiple counties throughout California, including Calaveras, which is the more concerning scenario that we’ve been planning for but hoping against.”
The current case rate in Calaveras County, which measures the number of cases per 100,000 in population, is 45.2.
“100 or greater is considered significantly concerning, but anything over 25 is moderately concerning,” Kelaita said. “We’re in that grey zone between where we want to be hopefully and where it becomes more significantly concerning and could potentially put us on the state’s monitoring list.”
The county’s hospitalization rate for all cases of COVID-19 is currently 13.4%, with nine people hospitalized in total and no deaths. 3,196 PCR tests have been conducted in the county, an average of 73 tests a day over the past two weeks. The positivity rate for those tested is currently 4%, Kelaita said.
“You hear that the more tests you do, the more cases you get – that’s partially true – but when the positivity rate of the tests go up, that’s indicative of more community transmission taking place,” he said. “Less than 8% is where we want to be, but our positivity rate has doubled in the last two weeks from 2% to 4%.”
Kelaita said that the county is currently averaging 146 tests per 100,000 people per day. “We want to be above 150 minimum,” he said.
The county has been experiencing delays in receiving results at the OptumServe testing site in Angels Camp, Kelaita said.
“The testing is delayed now – getting the results back – sometimes as long as seven days, and that’s because of the sheer volume of tests that are being done,” he said. “If you get the tests performed at the OptumServe test site, they don’t analyze the test right there at that site. It gets sent out to another lab. That lab is outside of the area, and they process specimens from lots of labs – not just that one facility – so the delay in testing is due to the increasing demands of the testing system.”
In Calaveras County, young adults are overrepresented relative to their proportion of the population in COVID-19 infections. Seniors have gotten tested at a rate above their percentage of the population.
“African American groups, although it’s a small proportion of our population, have a little bit of overrepresentation, the same with Hispanic groups as well,” Kelaita said. “Their rate of cases and hospitalizations are a little bit higher than they represent in the general population.”
Kelaita said that reopening the economy will require practicing social distancing, as well as other safety measures like hand-washing and mask-wearing.
“For some reason, wearing a face covering has become political for some residents,” he said. “The virus doesn’t understand or care about politics. It understands science and it understands its own biology. The good news is that we understand that biology, too. We understand that science, too. And so an important tool to fight COVID-19 infection increases is for the public to wear a face covering when outside. It’s critical to allow for us to prevent further economic hardship and to continue to reopen society, as opposed to going backward.”
Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) Director Kristin Stranger said that the process for granting new attestations has been paused across California, and the state has discouraged counties from continuing to reopen more sectors, even if they are allowed to. Calaveras County has already reopened all sectors which are allowed, she said.
HHSA has been providing technical assistance to schools to help in the reopening process, Stranger said.
“(We) are working to bring back students into the classroom in a modified fashion to the greatest extent possible through a combination of in-person and distance learning, as many other school districts are throughout the state,” she said. “I cannot overemphasize enough the fluidity of the situation, particularly when it comes to schools. Our school administration here is doing a phenomenal job of preparing to the best extent possible to mitigate risk as well as balance the educational needs of our students and community as a whole.”
The members of the board voiced enthusiasm for quickly putting together an urgency ordinance to help local businesses transition to outdoor-only service – possibly by allowing them to utilize sidewalks and parking lots for outdoor seating – and directed staff to begin that process.
“These restaurants, they were closed down for two to three months already,” District 5 Supervisor Ben Stopper said. “They just got back on their feet. Some barely made it – if they made it through that first round. This second round is a deal-breaker for the majority of restaurants I talk to. While we’re trying to save lives, we’re also losing livelihoods.”
In a presentation to the board on COVID-19 funding allocations from the California Department of Finance, County Administrative Officer Albert Alt said that he had submitted certification forms to the state on July 6 agreeing to accept the terms of the funding, which require the county to comply with federal and state health orders and guidance related to the pandemic.
“In my estimation, that includes guidances that have already come out, but will also include guidances that come out throughout the duration of the funding as well,” Alt said. “So we may be compelled, and likely are compelled, to follow guidances that will come out subsequent to even signing this certification.”
The funds will come through two separate allocations: a $4.59 million Coronavirus Relief Fund allocation to address unbudgeted costs incurred for public health and public safety between March 1 and Dec. 30; and a $900,000 County General Fund COVID-19 allocation to provide support for counties experiencing revenue losses for realigned programs. The funds will be provided through the federal CARES Act.
While the approval of the board wasn’t necessary to submit the certification, the board does have the ability to rescind it. Supervisors voiced concerns about committing to comply with future federal and state orders, as well as concerns around ambiguous state guidelines related to how the funds can be used.
“We work for the state of California,” District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi said. “In my opinion, we’re faced with two choices: we take the money and we do what the state says, or we don’t take the money and we do what the state says. Any way we do this, we’re going to have to do what the state says.”