Jessica Cejnar / Tuesday, May 12 @ 2:26 p.m. / Emergencies, Health, Local Government

(Updated) Health Officer Argues for Lifting Ban on Vacation Rentals, RV Parks to 'Import' Low Level of COVID into Del Norte

The public health officer has asked for state permission to lift restrictions on vacation rentals and RV parks to try to import COVID-19 into Del Norte County.

Owning that relaxing safety measures puts some at risk for severe illness, Dr. Warren Rehwaldt told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday he didn’t want Del Norte to be well along the path of reopening without being able to track viral activity.

“I made the case to the state yesterday, during my presentation, that we actually needed some relaxation of a Stage 3 item — namely allowing some short-stay travelers to come in and stay in our county — to bring virus into the county so we have something to measure,” Rehwaldt told supervisors. “As crazy as that sounds — if we don’t have any disease activity going on — as we start to relax these restrictions we won’t know when we've gone too far until we have a huge surge of cases showing up in the hospital and people in bad shape. And I don’t want to see that.”

There have only been three positive novel coronavirus cases in Del Norte County, Rehwaldt said. Nearly 480 tests have been conducted and there’s a strong chance that the last positive case made public on April 27 was linked to the first two, he said.

Shuttering schools, restaurants, lodging facilities and other businesses may have halted the virus in its tracks, Rehwaldt said.

But this isn’t good news for everyone.

“The super high risk people, the super elderly, they cannot come outside and play yet,” Rehwaldt said. “They have to stay indoors and stay shuttered down. Especially during the early phases of reopening.”

Rehwaldt and County Administrative Officer Jay Sarina, director of the Del Norte Office of Emergency Services, will seek a letter of support from the Board of Supervisors on Thursday to submit to the California Department of Public Health. That letter, along with input from Sutter Coast Hospital and local emergency medical providers, will help Del Norte bolster its case that the community can lift safety measures quicker than other parts of the state, Rehwaldt said.

According to Rehwaldt, the state extended this variance application to 30 counties in California. Many are small with little to no viral activity, he said.

“The biggest advantage of doing this is it allows us to open up restaurants in a stepwise fashion earlier than the rest of the state,” he said, adding that testing capacity has improved locally, especially at Sutter Coast Hospital, whose in-house system can have results back within an hour or two.

“Going forward, our next project will be trying to improve surveillance testing in the county.”
Rehwaldt’s presentation also comes after he released guidance for restaurants to safely offer outdoor seating.

Counties wanting to lift stay-at-home measures at their own pace must show they have a low COVID-19 presence in their communities. They must meet testing and contact tracing guidelines. Their healthcare system must be able to withstand a sudden increase in cases and plans need to be in place to protect those who are most vulnerable of severe illness — the elderly and those with an underlying health condition.

For Del Norte County, increasing surveillance testing could mean using the community testing site, funded through CDPH, in Eureka, about 90 minutes away, according to Rehwaldt. The state is working toward a goal of having such testing sites located within an hour’s drive for people, he said, and is exploring the possibility of a mobile system that could travel to Del Norte and Trinity counties.

Though Sutter Coast Hospital can do in-house testing for COVID-19, Rehwaldt said he didn’t want to rely on one testing source, especially if disease activity increases as safety measures relax. Sutter Coast Hospital’s testing capacity is dedicated primarily to its clinical staff, he said.

Rehwaldt said there may also be a way to detect traces of coronavirus at sewage treatment plants using the same technology as polymerase chain reaction tests currently used for diagnostic COVID-19 tests.

Meanwhile, two nurses with the Del Norte County Public Health Branch are engaged in contact tracing, according to Rehwaldt. The state recommends a contact tracing staff of 15 per populations of 100,000 people, he said.

Bringing up meetings he’s had with Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary for the California Health and Human Services Agency, hosted by the California State Association of Counties, District 3 Supervisor Chris Howard asked about the likelihood of a spike in cases as shelter-in-place measures lift.

“What does that do to our county?” Howard asked Rehwaldt. “Do we go back into shut-down mode on this constant roller coaster?”

Rehwaldt said the ability of Del Norte to handle a potential increase in COVID-19 cases as it resumes a sense of normalcy is one of the questions state representatives asked him. The state wanted to know what Del Norte’s metrics were for being able to increase safety measures if that happened.

Rehwaldt referred to Sutter Coast Hospital’s ability to be able to handle COVID-19 cases without being overwhelmed.

“We are going to live with whatever level of disease that represents,” he said. “That really is the heart of all this, not to prevent the transmission of COVID forever in the community. We want to have a manageable activity level of the disease so we don’t get overwhelmed.”

Part of that strategy means that those most vulnerable for serious illness — the elderly and those with compromised immune systems — may have to stay indoors and continue sheltering in place, he said.

Rehwaldt’s presentation came after Log Cabin Diner owners Ed Salsedo and Sherry Scott asked if Del Norte County has reached out to others to petition the state to relax safety measures.

Despite the governor’s stay-at-home order, which prohibited indoor dining at restaurants, and a Yurok Tribal order shutting down the reservation, Salsedo and Scott offered dine-in service at their Klamath restaurant on May 2. They discontinued that service after Rehwaldt and tribal officials served them with cease and desist orders.

On Tuesday, Salsedo said the public health officer didn’t take “real science” into consideration when he ordered businesses to be closed. Salsedo also threatened to sue the county and Rehwaldt.

“I will be suing the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors and the county health officer for the loss of revenue, personal anguish and punitive damages — anything I can get,” Salsedo said. “We’re going to come after the Board of Supervisors if we don’t get leadership from you.”

Robert Derego, owner of the Sticky Grove cannabis dispensary, said he was alarmed at Rehwaldt’s suggestion to introduce viral activity in Del Norte County. Noting that he closed his business in early March and urged county leaders to curtail tourist traffic to the community, Derego said he was concerned about bringing the virus to the community with limited resources.

“People like myself, we made a sacrifice for the community’s good,” he said. “We wanted to make a sacrifice for the overall good of the community.”

As of Sunday, California has had 67,939 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 2,770 fatalities, according to the California Department of Public Health.


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