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Jessica Cejnar / Thursday, April 30, 2020 @ 5:02 p.m. / Community, Emergencies, Health, Local Government
McGuire Town Hall: More Testing, Contact Tracing, Hospital Beds Needed Before Relaxing COVID-19 Safety Measures
Del Norte’s public health officer hopes that a new community testing site in Humboldt County will enable more local residents to find out if they are positive for COVID-19.
The local community may also be a candidate for a similar testing site, though Del Norte County Public Health Officer Dr. Warren Rehwaldt said he would know more from state officials in about a week and a half. At a telephone town hall meeting hosted by State Sen. Mike McGuire, Rehwaldt said additional testing may be available at Sutter Coast Hospital and at Pelican Bay State Prison with turnaround time in about a day at the most.
Increased testing capacity, robust contact tracing of those who have been exposed to the novel coronavirus and isolating infected patients are necessary before relaxing stay-at-home and social distancing measures, Rehwaldt and his colleagues, Humboldt County Public Health Officer Dr. Teresa Frankovich, and Marcy Jo Cudziol, Trinity County’s public health nurse director.
“We’re getting better,” Rewhaldt said. “The testing profile for small counties like ours is starting to finally turn a corner here and make some steps.”
California is still two to three weeks away making a decision on opening up rural counties, McGuire said. Any decision will be made in conjunction with each county’s health officer. A more robust testing system, contact tracing along with more hospital beds and protective gear is necessary before any safety measures are relaxed, he said.
“We’re entering tourist season,” McGuire said. “Folks who will be traveling will eat out and potentially an individual who is positive will go to the Chart Room in Crescent City and that individual would then infect a local resident. This virus is going to be with us for at least another year to year and a half.”
The state senator also invited Dr. Timothy Brewer, an epidemiology professor from the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, to weigh in. Brewer gave an overview of COVID-19 at the state, national and international levels, and urged people to look at what happened in other communities that were too quick to relax their safety measures.
Using the Japanese island of Hokkaido, population 6 million, as an example, Brewer noted they were aggressive about instituting stay-at-home measures. They succeeded in bringing their caseload of 66 down to nearly zero, but relaxed their safety measures too soon, he said.
“About three weeks after they did that, they saw a rebound in cases. At one month afterward they were (up) to almost 300 cases,” Brewer said. “As long as the virus is transmitting anywhere in the country, we are at risk.”
There have been more than 3 million COVID-19 cases worldwide with 200,000 deaths for a global mortality rate of 7 percent, Brewer said. The number of positive cases in the United States is now more than 1 million with 60,000 deaths for a mortality rate of just under 6 percent, he said.
In California, there have been 45,000 positive COVID-19 cases and 1,800 deaths for a mortality rate of about 4 percent, Brewer said. Roughly 5,000 people are in the hospital in California at any given time due to the novel coronavirus, he said.
In response to a question from a Crescent City resident, Brewer said the death rate from the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 and 2010 was 0.02 percent. COVID-19's mortality rate is 2,200 times higher than H1N1, he said.
The disease appears to hit African Americans harder than other populations, he said, which account for about 30 percent of the cases nationwide though they make up about 13 percent of the population in the United States.
In California, African Americans make up about 6 percent of the population, account for 7 percent of positive COVID-19 cases and 10 percent of deaths, according to Brewer.
In Humboldt County, 2,000 residents have been tested and 54 positive COVID-19 cases have been confirmed, Frankovich said. Though the public health contact investigation team has been working to keep the case count under control, more testing is needed to understand the virus’s impact in Humboldt County, she said.
“We haven’t been able to test enough people to know that,” Frankovich said.
On Monday, Humboldt County’s community testing site was the first set up by the California governor’s office to become operational. There are kinks still to be worked out, but Frankovich said she expected to have the initial round of tests back on Thursday.
Healthcare workers, first responders and those who work in correctional and nursing facilities were among the first to be tested, Frankovich said. As the system grows, the general public will be able to access testing through an online platform in about a week. The test site will be able to test about 132 people a day, five days a week and have results back in 48 to 72 hours, she said.
This is also good news for Del Norte, Rehwaldt said.
“I’m hopeful when they get settled down and fully operational we can send some Del Norte residents down that way,” he said.
Of the roughly 350 tests that were conducted in Del Norte County, three patients have been positive for COVID-19, Rehwaldt said. Health officials think the patients contracted the virus via community spread, he said.
Eighty-three people were tested for the novel coronavirus in Trinity County, Cudziol said. All were negative. She said she has been “reaching up the chain” to state officials to enable Trinity residents to be tested in Weaverville.
“We know that broadening testing and isolating positive individuals and contact tracing of exposed individuals is foundational to (modifying) orders put in place by the governor and the health officer,” she said.
Trinity County officials have also been working with CalFire to determine how social distancing and quarantine measures for COVID-19 will work during wildfire season, Cudziol said. She noted that 142 tests a day would cover fire personnel in one or two days.
Rehwaldt fielded questions from local residents on what he thinks about a regional approach to relaxing safety measures as well as the potential status of the Del Norte County Fair.
Rehwaldt said because there’s no guarantee mass gathering prohibitions would be relaxed by the beginning of August, it’s likely the fair won’t happen. However, on Thursday, fairgrounds CEO Kim Floyd said the fair board has yet to make a decision on the four-day event.
Both Frankovich and Rehwaldt also offered their thoughts as to whether Humboldt and Del Norte counties will see a “peak” in COVID-19 cases.
According to Frankovich, if there had been no stay-at-home orders, Humboldt could have seen a peak in COVID-19 cases in July with massive hospitalization that would have overwhelmed the system. With the safety measures in place, she said, a peak in cases is expected to occur in November or December and be much more manageable for the healthcare system.
Rehwaldt said he was hopeful Del Norte County wouldn’t experience similar peaks in cases that other communities have seen. He noted that stay-at-home measures as well as an order prohibiting short-term rentals in lodging facilities occurred public health officials reported Del Norte’s first positive case.
A peak in COVID-19 cases for Del Norte County would likely occur at the same time as Humboldt County, Rehwaldt said.
“As we take things away we expect more transmission start to happen since there would be more opportunity for the virus to propagate,” he said, adding that virus transmission could change weekly depending on how the community goes about relaxing safety measures. “We have one chance to get this right and if it goes badly we’ll come back to where we are now. I think people need to be guarded in their optimism. It could be a complicated piece of reopening that could have implications for a lot of people.”
Rehwaldt addressed short-term rentals in Del Norte County. This is in response to an order Rehwaldt issued March 29 prohibiting stays of less than 30 days at local lodging facilities.
On Wednesday, Rehwaldt said it depends on the state to determine when lodging facilities can accommodate visitors again. But in Del Norte County, he noted, tourism is critical for the community.
Rehwaldt also piggybacked on McGuire’s comment about the Chart Room, saying that if everything’s in place a person traveling from an area with a lot of COVID-19 cases may not infect anyone if servers are wearing masks, the dining room is properly ventilated and tables are properly spaced out.
“We have to really drill down and get all those complements of all the businesses that might affect tourism, for example,” he said. “They all have to be working together to make sure transmission is not going to take place.”
Noting that Humboldt County needs more robust testing capacity, contact tracing and additional hospital beds, Frankovich said she was encouraged that Newsom’s recently-announced plan for relaxing safety measures indicated an ability to customize it on a local level.
According to Newsom’s “roadmap,” restaurants will likely reopen with fewer tables and face masks could be a common sight.
For more state-level information about COVID-19, visit COVID19.ca.gov.