Jessica Cejnar / Tuesday, March 24 @ 5:28 p.m. / Emergencies, Health, Infrastructure, Local Government

Emergency Officials Prepare For Potential Surge of Cases Once COVID-19 Shows Up In Del Norte County


Though he sympathized with businesses having to close their doors and potentially lay off employees due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Warren Rehwaldt said the alternative could be horrendous for Del Norte County.

Speaking before county supervisors on Tuesday, the local public health officer said no one, Del Norte included, has the medical support to manage a wave of COVID-19 cases at once.

“We maybe one and a half hospital beds per 1,000 people in this county,” Rehwaldt said. “It’s probably less than that because the catchment area for Sutter Coast Hospital includes most of southern Curry County, all of Brookings. We don’t have anything in place to meet the demand if this virus gets out of control.”

In addition to giving a power point presentation prepared by Emergency Services Manager Kymmie Scott, Rehwaldt fielded questions from supervisors on a variety of topics. Those topics included the economy, the role local hotels and vacation rentals play in curtailing COVID-19’s spread and the availability to test for the virus.

Rehwaldt also discussed herd immunity, the need to keep those who work to maintain food, fuel, energy, water, sewer and medical services healthy. Del Norte’s Emergency Operations Center is currently at Level 2, he said, and is working on meeting the housing, feeding and medical needs of those who are most vulnerable.

In addition to calling for volunteers to build up a workforce to keep those services going, Rehwaldt said local emergency officials are preparing for a surge of possible COVID-19 cases and are trying to back up the medical system as much as they can.

“We’re not cut off from anybody,” he said. “This is not like a tsunami event where we’ll be on our own for weeks.”

Del Norte County has yet to see a positive COVID-19 case. As of 5:04 p.m. Tuesday, 37 tests have been administered to local individuals. The results for 31 have returned negative and six are still pending, according to the Public Health Branch.

Noting that more than 300,000 people in 190 countries have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to the World Health Organization, Rehwaldt said the situation is changing by the minute.

Since Governor Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order on Thursday, Rehwaldt said he and other emergency officials are trying to establish a community mitigation strategy. He referred to the essential businesses that continue to serve the public, including grocery stores, banks, laundromats, gas station and pharmacies.

Hotels are essential for many workers who travel while they’re on a job, Rehwaldt said. However, he noted that it may be difficult to separate those who travel for work from those who are on vacation.
Vacation rentals are also questionable, Rehwaldt said in response to a question from District 2 Supervisor Lori Cowan.

Cowan said she has been fielding calls from constituents concerned about vacation rental bookings for spring break being cancelled due to the pandemic. But, she noted, many vacation rentals are used for traveling nurses.

Rehwaldt responded by saying there’s not much guidance available from the state on how to deal with travelers coming into the community.

“I don’t think we can deny travel outside of a general order from the governor to forbid travel,” he said. “From what I’ve heard from other jurisdictions, enforcement of that is really tough. We’re all waiting for better guidance.”

District 1 Supervisor Roger Gitlin also brought up an economic concern.

“Some people believe the cure for this COVID-19 virus is actually worse than the actual virus itself,” Gitlin said. “Businesses are shutting down, layoffs are ongoing, who’s going to pay for that? People are suffering. How do you address the economic factor, if at all? Or are you going to take the position that you’re going to do what’s best as a medical official?”

Citing global reports, Rehwaldt said the virus has a death rate of 1 to 3 percent. In Italy the death rate grew to about 10 percent, he said.

Del Norte County experiences about 270-300 deaths per year under normal circumstances, Rehwaldt said. The county could lose 10 times that as a result of the virus, he said, adding that the virus has forced his in-laws who are brewers and restaurant owners in Southern California from having to lay off their employees.

“As a medical professional, in knowing what I know about this virus, I can’t advise anybody not to follow the governor’s directions at this time,” he said.

Eventually, health officials hope enough people will have been infected with the COVID-19 virus that communities will develop herd immunity, Rehwaldt said. But, he said, it could take an estimated 50 to 70 percent of the population to build up that immunity. If health professionals did nothing to try to slow the virus’s spread, it could take eight to 12 weeks for it to replicate and jump into enough people to achieve herd immunity and many would die in the process.

Following Rehwaldt’s appearance before supervisors Tuesday, Scott told the Wild Rivers Outpost that her office and a plethora of volunteer teams were preparing for that potential surge in local COVID-19 cases. The Del Norte Office of Emergency Services is receiving shipments of personal protective equipment and other supplies from the state weekly. Volunteers make sure those supplies get to the local first responder agencies and healthcare facilities, Scott said.

OES has also been working with the Disaster Animal Response Team and the Del Norte County Fairgrounds to make sure people’s pets will be taken care of when the virus begins making its rounds in the community, Scott said.

Residents can prepare for that eventuality by ensuring their animals are up to date on their vaccines, have tags if they require special medication and have enough extra food set aside, she said.

“If they have to go for the hospital for awhile or even if they’re ill at home and can’t care for pets, we want to make sure people’s pets are taken care of,” Scott said.

People should also ensure their personal lifelines are in place, making arrangements with friends, family or neighbors to ensure their loved ones are cared for if they get sick, Scott said.

“If that’s simply not an option, the county has structures in place for that anyways, but we don’t want that system to be overwhelmed either,” she said. “We’re all going to have needs and we’re all going to have things to give and we all need to help each other out in the next few months.”

Scott is also in the process of putting together a call bank of volunteers to help people get needed information. One idea, she said, was a phone-a-friend service to maintain a social connection for those who are weathering the pandemic on their own.

“Everybody can do that,” she said, adding that KCRE and KPOD came up with the idea of a five-person challenge. “I’m just challenging everybody to call five people they wouldn’t normally reach out to and say ‘Hi.’ I think that’s awesome to get going as a regular part of this response effort.”

For more information about the COVID-19 response in Del Norte County, visit the Prepare Del Norte website. To find out about local volunteer opportunities, call (707) 464-7255 or email oes_volunteer@co.delnorte.ca.us.


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