Jessica Cejnar / Thursday, May 14 @ 5:27 p.m. / Community, Emergencies, Health

With New COVID Case in Del Norte, Public Health Officer Abandons Plan to Reopen Vacation Rentals, RV Parks and Campgrounds

Del Norte’s latest COVID-19 case has prompted the county public health officer to abandon a plan to reopen some lodging facilities to try to import the virus into the community.

Dr. Warren Rehwaldt said the fourth positive case identified on Tuesday eased his fears about not having any disease activity in Del Norte County.

Instead of asking county supervisors to urge the state to allow him to incorporate Stage 3 measures into Del Norte’s reopening plan, Rehwaldt presented them with a “standard phase 2 variance request” at a special meeting Thursday.

“It’s a little over five weeks now from our very first cases… and we hadn’t had anything new even though we increased our testing numbers quite significantly,” Rehwaldt told the Wild Rivers Outpost and KFUG Community Radio’s Paul Critz following the meeting. “It made me think that it was entirely possible that in a community like ours, as spread out as we are, with low population density, as far away as we are from a lot of disease transmission, we barely got touched by this virus. That meant there was a small chance — still a significant chance — that we would be starting from nothing. We’d be starting as though the pandemic hadn’t happened.”

The Del Norte County Board of Supervisors on Thursday voted 4-1 in favor of submitting a letter of support to state Public Health Officer Dr. Sonia Angell on behalf of Rehwaldt’s request for a variance to Stage 2 of California’s Roadmap to Modify the Stay-at-Home Order.

District 1 Supervisor Roger Gitlin dissented, saying the public didn’t have enough time to review the variance application in the state’s “attestation form.”

If Angell and the California Department of Public Health approve Del Norte’s request for a variance, the county may set its own guidelines for reopening dine-in restaurants and shopping centers, according to California Coronavirus (COVID-19) Response web page.

Rehwaldt told supervisors Thursday that he didn’t expect CDPH to make a decision about Del Norte’s request that day. He said he may not find out if the request has been accepted until the end of Friday or even Saturday.

Though he’s gone on record as being eager to lift COVID-19 safety measures gradually, Gitlin said Thursday the spaces on the state’s form for information specific to Del Norte County’s request were blank. Instead, that information was in another document attached to Rehwaldt’s variance request, Gitlin said.

Gitlin said he spoke with representatives of the Del Norte Healthcare District, which also had concerns about Rehwaldt’s initial plan to reopen vacation rentals, RV parks and campgrounds to try to reintroduce disease activity into the community.

Though County Administrative Officer Jay Sarina said county staff had difficulty working with the state’s attestation form, Gitlin argued that there was a lack of clarity.

“Explain what you will, the public does not have access to this information,” he said, requesting the decision be delayed. “I think the easy thing to do would be to put the document to all of us so we can see the actual boxed answers.”

The Healthcare District held an emergency meeting Wednesday to discuss Rehwaldt’s proposed variance request and inviting the public health officer to speak. Rehwaldt said he didn’t feel it was appropriate to answer their questions before discussing the topic with the Board of Supervisors.

“As a county employee, I answer to you, not to the Healthcare District,” Rehwaldt said.

According to Rehwaldt, Del Norte’s new case puts the request to lift the ban on some short-term stays to reintroduce COVID-19 into the community way on the back burner. Though he’s happy to see a new case and hopes to get a few more, he doesn’t want them to occur within the next 14 days because if the county chooses to delay submitting the variance, that window could close.

When it became apparent that his concerns about a lack of active disease in Del Norte were unfounded, Rehwaldt said he rewrote the proposal he told supervisors Tuesday he planned to submit. Rehwaldt said state officials were unlikely to accept his argument that not having active COVID-19 cases in the community could potentially open it up to greater problems as it continues to relax safety measures.

According to Rehwaldt, the latest patient to test positive for the novel coronavirus is recovering at home.

“We’ve been lucky,” he said. “All the cases, as far as I know, have done very well after the fact — after diagnosis.”

Three local patients have recovered from the novel coronavirus, according to the Public Health Branch. As of 3:54 p.m. Thursday, a total of 495 tests have been administered in Del Norte County. The results for seven are still pending and 484 are negative, according to the Public Health Branch.

If the state approves Del Norte’s variance request it will be among 19 other counties, including Humboldt, that are able to move through Stage 2 quicker. The state public health officer grants variances to counties that can show they have a low COVID-19 presence in their communities, can meet testing and contact tracing guidelines and have a healthcare system able to withstand a sudden increase in cases.

To receive a variance from CDPH, the Board of Supervisors and Sutter Coast Hospital both had to submit letters of support, Rehwaldt said.

In a letter to the Board of Supervisors, the Healthcare District stated they were not included in any discussions on the plan to relax COVID-19 safety measures and believed the incomplete attestation document was a violation of the Brown Act.

“This process has been moving very quickly before the Board, and given the virtual manner in which we are now conducting the public’s business, we do question whether the public is really informed of the nature and extent of the request being made by the public health officer,” the Healthcare District’s letter stated. “In fact, it would concretely appear that if the public is limited to the access the District has, it cannot be so informed. Our request is that the Board make the entire variance available both to the District and to the public so we can all carefully consider and inform public comment.”

The Del Norte Healthcare District also brought up the county’s status as a federally designated health professional shortage area with a small hospital.

“Del Norte County is an isolated region with limited emergency patient transport capacity for COVID-19 patients and there’s no air ambulance transportation for COVID positive patients to other hospitals,” the Healthcare Districts letter stated.

Though lifting the ban on vacation rentals and some other lodging facilities was taken off the table, Robert Derego, owner of the Sticky Grove cannabis dispensary, nominated Healthcare District Chairman Dr. Kevin Caldwell to replace Rehwaldt as public health officer.

Derego singled out Gitlin and District 3 Supervisor Chris Howard, who owns a vacation rental, saying they needed to recuse themselves from the discussion.

“We’ve all spent too much time and too much energy to do the right thing to see this nuttiness,” Derego said. “Just last week you guys said we don’t want any prison transfers. This is a big conflict and it’s going to dissolve trust in our community, so we need to deal with it immediately.”

In a later statement to the Outpost, Gitlin said he didn’t have a vacation rental.

Though receiving a variance allows Del Norte to relax safety measures governing restaurants and retailers, those most at risk of serious illness from COVID-19, including the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, should still shelter in place, Rehwaldt said.

It could take about four weeks or longer to measure the effect reopening will have on disease activity, Rehwaldt said.

“We need to go with the pace the virus dictates,” he said. “The virus sets the pace in terms of how fast it incubates in people, how fast they become symptomatic and how fast they infect other people.”


COVID-19 County Variance Attestation Form for Del Norte County


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