County fights virus surge with ‘Stay Safe, Stay Open’ push
Bars, museums, indoor dining close as region added to state's watch list
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story which appears in part in this week’s Merced County Times newspaper has been updated here with new data from the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation in this region. Due to press deadlines, The Times was unable to get Wednesday’s updated coronavirus statistics and closure announcements in this week’s newspaper dated for Thursday, July 2.
ALSO: See latest county COVID-19 statistics and charts at end of this story.
State health officials this week added Merced County to the list of 19 California counties hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of July 1, the county is now on the third day of not having met state requirements listed in the attestation criteria allowing the county to progress from Stage 2 to 2B.
The most recent data is alarming.
The number of confirmed coronaviruscases reported in the county since the pandemic began has reached 1,131 — that’s an increase of 67 since the previous day. On Monday, the country recored a record daily increase of 87 active cases, while the rate of individual screened for the disease testing positive rose to 7.61 percent.
Approximately 610 of the overall reported cases are considered “probable” active.
11 local residents have died.
“The State has made it very clear that should the cases continue to increase without change over the next 21-day period, they may have to intervene or require that the county return to sheltering in place,” said Dr. Rebecca Nanyonjo-Kemp, Merced County’s Public Health Director. “We have worked so hard for the past several months in keeping numbers low. This is clearly not the case and while the Department does its part, it will be depending on residents in the community to do theirs.”
Due to the increased levels of transmission and hospitalizations, local health officials are working
closely with CDPH and state officials to establish and implement steps to mitigate spread. At the
direction of the governor, Merced County Health Officials are mandating the closure of higher risk ￼￼￼￼business sectors by Friday, July 3, 2020.
All bars, brew pubs and breweries must cease operations (indoor and outdoor).
In addition, the following business sectors must close all indoor operations:
• Restaurants (socially-distanced outdoor dining still permissible)
• Wineries and Tasting Rooms
• Family Entertainment Centers (e.g., bowling, movie theaters, etc.)
• Zoos and Museums
The above sectors will remain impacted for a minimum of 21 days, or until the county data monitored by CDPH improves.
To prevent further holiday-related spikes in COVID-19 cases, Merced County’s regional parks will be closed to the public over the Fourth of July holiday weekend (Friday-Sunday). This includes Lake Yosemite, Hagaman Park, and Henderson Park.
These parks will reopen Monday, but physical distancing must be adhered to and group gatherings of greater than 10 people will continue to be prohibited.
“We’ve also seen an increase in our hospitalizations,” said Dr. Kristynn Sullivan, the county’s supervising epidemiologist. “We originally had 0 to 1 people in the hospital due to the virus, and we now have between 20 and 26 total.”
This range, 20 to 26, represents the number of people in Merced County hospitals on any given day who were admitted because they were suffering from the coronavirus. This number takes into consideration those who have passed away, those who were discharged, and new cases.
Meanwhile, deaths from the virus have also increased to 11.
“The eighth death was a person between the ages of 35 and 50 who had no underlying health conditions,” Sullivan pointed out. “The ninth, 10th and 11th deaths were of individuals above the age of 65. One definitely did not have underlying health conditions. … Sometimes, people do not understand the seriousness of this until they know someone who has been infected by COVID-19.”
The number of confirmed active COVID-19 cases and recoveries are no longer listed online through the county’s COVID-19 statistics dashboard. Public Health Director RebeccaNanyonjo-Kemp said the definition of a “recovery” varies from county to county, and officials are working on new set of criteria to report those numbers that is less labor intensive as cases continue to soar.
Stay Safe to Stay Open
To raise public awareness that mask wearing, social distancing and hand hygiene are critical in order to stem the spread of the virus, Public Health has announced the “Stay Safe to Stay Open” campaign
“The whole valley is seeing a spike in cases,” Dr. Sullivan told the Times. “I can’t speak for the state, but in the past, the state has decided to shut things down, and so it’s not off the table.”
The last time Dr. Sullivan spoke to the Times was on June 5, when the number of virus cases in Merced County was 334. She explained, “On June 5, we were getting about seven new cases a day, which was an increase over what we had been seeing. By June 25, we were averaging about 34 new cases a day. This changed pretty dramatically. The last day we had a single digit increase was June 11. Since then, we have had a double digit increase every day.
“In the period of time from June 5 to June 25, about three weeks, the number of new cases of community spread doubled — from 91 to 184 — and 169 additional cases were under investigation.
“We reported we had outbreaks at Hughson Nuts, Dutch Bros Coffee in Merced, and a handful of smaller facilities. We’re reporting currently on an outbreak in Los Banos at a skilled nursing facility, New Bethany. None of these are enough to account for all the new cases we’re seeing. We’re seeing quite a bit more of community spread.
Community spread is determined when a patient who tests positive is asked if they know of anyone with whom they have been in close proximity who has tested positive for the virus, and their answer is “No.” In cases of community spread, there is really no way of knowing from whom the disease was contracted.
“We’re behind on determining exposure type because of the number of cases we’ve been getting,” Dr. Sullivan said. “It is taking us longer right now to contact everyone and perform the first case interview, which is where we ask questions that determine who has been exposed through community spread. …
“I believe as we reopen, we’re seeing more widespread spread — workplace exposure, community spread and the same family clusters we’ve had. In the entire time we’ve seen the virus in Merced County, we hadn’t seen a substantial decrease in cases, only a plateau. Then we reopened. We expected to see more cases because more people are mixing, and so there is more chance for spread. “But this is a little bit faster than we anticipated.
“There’s no one thing that’s caused it.”
When asked if people not following the state guidelines could result in a surge in virus cases, Dr. Sullivan told the Times, “The guidelines are available on ReopenMercedCounty.com.
“There is a state guideline requiring masking indoors in public spaces, and outdoors, it is required if you are unable to maintain six feet of social distance, and that is a really important measure to take to stop the spread of coronavirus. The state has had an increase in spread and hospitalizations, and that is why this was done.
“Some people feel wearing a mask infringes on their liberty to do what they want to do with their bodies, and some are refusing to wear masks as a sign of rebelling. A lot of businesses said they wouldn’t be enforcing that order, and some law enforcement said they wouldn’t enforce these orders. This attitude is not unique to us as a county, but certainly there are a contingency of individuals here who feel that way.
“We’ve seen some pretty big increases in Atwater [an increase to 134 cases total] and in the City of Merced [433 cases total] and Los Banos [115 cases total]. But we’ve also seen increases in the community, not just those cities.
“I would compare wearing a mask to wearing a seat belt. Choosing not to do it would be considered reckless.
“If the business people are not following appropriate safety measures, I choose not to go to those establishments. I choose to patronize businesses that are following safe practices that are outlined in the State guidelines.
“I think people have the misperception that the mask will protect them, but the idea is that if everybody wears their mask, it protects the people around you. When there is a critical mass of people wearing the masks, the number of cases goes down and then hospitalizations go down. It is about protecting the community, not just about individuals protecting themselves.
“As to masking, County Public Health is not able to do enforcement activities. Enforcing the wearing of masks would be a law enforcement decision.”
Describing what people in the community seem to be expressing that could impact the virus surge, Dr. Sullivan said, “I think people are tired of the coronavirus and tired of staying home and want to go back to normal. I think some people don’t believe it’s real. I think some people think we’re getting financial kickbacks for reporting cases, which is not true, and maybe we’re fudging our numbers, which we’re not.
“I think some people think the increase in cases is due to an increase in testing. But our testing has been pretty stable for the last few weeks, and the percentage of tests that have been positive has increased dramatically. So the increase is not due to an increase in testing.
“So I think it’s very complex.”
Describing the seriousness of the situation, she said, “The virus isn’t responding to the heat in the same way other respiratory illnesses do. Flu cases will decrease in summer. We haven’t seen that with the coronavirus. Spikes are also happening in Florida and Texas, which opened up pretty broadly. They are seeing increases in cases and hospitalizations, and these are also hot weather states.
“It’s a very unique virus. It is a respiratory virus because it enters typically through the respiratory system — the mouth and nose or possibly the eyes — and then it settles into the lungs first.
“The flu typically only attacks the lungs. The difference with the coronavirus type of molecule is it sticks to an individual’s lungs in a different way than the flu, and it goes into the upper respiratory track and then down into the lower respiratory track, and can really do some harm.
“Another way it’s different from the flu is it affects other body systems. We see cases where there is kidney trauma or kidney failure. It has led to increase in strokes in younger individuals. It can lead to an inflammatory disease in children, a rare side effect. It can cause heart problems. These things can occur after the patient recovers from the symptoms.
“It’s so new that we don’t know what the long-term effects will be.
“The first case we had in Merced County is just over three months ago, March 22, so the person with the longest recovery history in Merced County has been in recovery for three months.”
Dr. Sullivan has talked to people who believe they already had the virus early this year.
She said, “Most of the people who believe they had the virus then did not have it.
“Out of 700 to 900 tested for antibodies, only about 3 percent have been positive, meaning only 3 percent of those tested for antibodies had been exposed to the virus already.
“Donating blood through a Red Cross blood drive provides an opportunity to get an antibody test. Another way to get an antibody test would be a referral by your primary care provider, but there would probably be a charge.”
Due to the increasing COVID-19 numbers, the county is expected to return to releasing daily reports on virus spread, rather than releasing them on a weekly basis as officials have done in recent weeks. The most recent statistics can be found on Merced County’s official website.
The table below includes the metrics the state has identified as not having been met.
*Note: CDPH doesn’t disclose this data when less than 20 COVID patients are housed within County hospitals. In the spirit of transparency, the Merced County Department of Public Health feels it is important for the community to have this information.
See CDPH monitoring website for more information: https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CID/DCDC/Pages/COVID-19/CountyMonitoringDataStep2.aspx