Merced County Times Newspaper
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Local region on verge of entering ‘red’ in war on virus

Audit finds 39 cases were double-counted

Merced County’s transition from the state’s most restrictive COVID-19 “purple” status to an improved “red” tier is imminent, local health officials say.

The red tier is the one in which schools have a direct pathway to reopen for on-campus instruction.

To advance, however, the goal is a coronavirus test positivity rate of less than 8 percent, and cases per day of less than seven per 100,000.

The statistics are looking good.

The county’s positivity rate was 4.9 percent as of Sept. 22.

“We are seeing things move in the right direction,” said Dr. Kristynn Sullivan, the county’s supervising epidemiologist. “The cases per day are going down, and we’re also getting very close to the red tier level which is seven or fewer cases per day per 100,000. We’re at eight cases per day per 100,000.

“We’re a minimum of two weeks out. If we were to hit red tomorrow and consistently maintain that, then two weeks from tomorrow we could move to red. We have to be within the red tier for two weeks before schools can reopen.

“The reason the state is doing that is the first time the state reopened, we saw a spike statewide in late June and early July. They’re trying to mitigate that by having stability before they move to the next tier.

“To move to the next tier, you have to be within the tier you’re on for three weeks, and you have to be meeting the data requirements for the less restrictive tier you’re trying to move into for two weeks before you can move into it.

“For example, when we can move to red tier, we will be in red for three weeks minimum, and we have to meet the criteria for orange for two weeks while we’re within red before we move to orange.

“For all the businesses that can reopen in the red tier, you can reopen them the first day we move to the red tier, but for schools, you have to be in red for two weeks before they can reopen.

“You can go online to https://covid19.ca.gov  and click on county maps and it gives you a robust way of looking at the counties and the tier they’re in and all the activities and it’ll show you in every county what’s open and not open.”

On Tuesday, the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Merced County since counting began last spring numbered 8,803 — that was minus 17 from the day before (Monday) when the total number was reported at 8,820.

Explaining the drop in cases, Dr. Sullivan told the Times on Tuesday: “As our cases have been decreasing, we have had time to implement a data quality process so we can provide the most accurate data to the community.  We have been able to do quality control and auditing work and identify errors on our caseload such as duplicates, and we’ve been able to clean those up. We have 39 duplicates, and we haven’t got 39 cases today, so our case numbers will drop.”

Labor Day spike?

Dr. Sullivan said, “There has not been a spike.

“For previous holidays, it has taken three weeks to see the spike.  We haven’t seen any increase, and we’re very hopeful that will stay the same.

“We believe people are being better about masking and social distancing, and the businesses are making sure to follow clear safety protocol.

“We’ve helped mitigate multiple large outbreaks, and outbreaks are a way that we can get rapid increase in cases, so mitigating those is helping.

“Also, when the case rate in the community is lower, then the disease doesn’t spread as quickly, even if people do break the rules.

“When we have high rates of spread, then any time people do not wear a mask or have get togethers, it increases the chance of spreading it exponentially.

“Another thing we’ve been highlighting is staying home if you’re sick.  I think there is a shift in that direction in that people are being cautious if they’re feeling a little bit ill.

“There are quite a few programs through the State that can give benefits to workers who don’t have paid sick leave.  We’ve been doing outreach and education around those programs that are available.”

Test, test, test

Dr. Sullivan said, “Some of the new mobile testing sites are doing well, and some are doing not as well as we had hoped. Some have tested 30 people, and others have been as high as 130.

“We have seen a decrease in testing recently, but the more we can do, the more credit we get from the state.

“I think the testing has decreased because people are really tired of being tested, and it’s counter-intuitive to get tested for something when you don’t feel sick. With our case rate going down, fewer people are feeling ill and fewer people think they have been exposed to someone so they don’t feel like going and getting tested.

“The main thing we want to encourage is people getting tested, especially essential workers, just to make sure we capture all the asymptomatic spread in the community quickly and also because the State gives us that credit to reopen.”

Those who have been within six feet of a person who is positive for COVID for at least 15 minutes, and those without symptoms need a test.  This is the opposite of the CDC’s August wording of “don’t necessarily need a test,” which McClatchy News previously reported.

Dr. Sullivan explained, “Regardless of whether you are wearing a mask, anyone within six feet of someone who is COVID positive for 15 minutes or more is considered a close contact.  We advise all close contacts to quarantine for 14 days.”

More K – 6 schools reopening

Originally, 10 schools in Merced County received State-approved waivers for their K through grade 6 students to return to on-campus instruction:  Los Banos Adventist Christian School, St. Paul Lutheran School, El Nido Elementary, Our Lady of Fatima School, Our Lady of Mercy School, St. Anthony School, Le Grand Union Elementary School, Plainsburg Union Elementary School, Snelling Merced Falls School, and Merced River School.

Dr. Sullivan announced, “Three more schools have been granted waivers since the original 10:  Dos Palos Elementary School and Bernhard Marks Elementary School in Dos Palos, and Our Lady of Miracles in Gustine.”

Outbreaks

The most recent COVID outbreak as of Sept. 22 is the one reported on Sept. 16 at Merced Behavioral Health Center, a 96-bed skilled nursing facility serving those 18 to 65 years old.

Dole was recently cleared, and the Franciscan was cleared on Sept. 22.

Dr. Sullivan told the Times, “Foster Farms is still on the list of outbreaks. The facility that was closed for six days at Foster Farms was one building, and that building has been cleared from outbreak.  One of the smaller buildings in the complex is now in the process of testing to be cleared, and then the whole complex will be cleared.”

As of Sept. 22, nine formerly active workplace outbreaks were eliminated from the county’s running list:  El Portal Cancer Center, Hilmar Cheese Company, McLane Pacific, Merced Behavioral Health Center, Minturn Nut Company, Hy-Lond Health Care Merced and the Merced County Human Services Agency, Dole, and Franciscan.

Currently, there are 10 outbreaks: U.S. Penitentiary Atwater, Walmart Supercenter in Atwater, Foster Farms Livingston Complex, Hilmar Christian Children’s Center, La Sierra Care Center, Liberty Packing, Merced County John Latorraca Jail, Merced County Main Jail, Park Merced and Hampshire Retirement Community.

Outbreaks are closed when there are no additional laboratory confirmed cases at the facility for two weeks.

Hospitalizations

When asked if it’s true that hospitalizations have fallen over the past several weeks but not as fast as the declining daily case counts, Dr. Sullivan responded, “That is true.  We’re stabilized now.  In late July, we had over 60 people hospitalized in Merced County and currently that number is 11, so it has dropped dramatically which is really great.”

Reported deaths

In regard to deaths linked to employees at the Foster Farms plant in Livingston, Dr. Sullivan told the Times: “The ninth death occurred in an individual who had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and hospitalized prior to intervention from the Merced County Department of Public Health.  Foster Farms was directed to close in September, and the individual who died became ill in July, was positive prior to the closure, and had been hospitalized since August. That person did recently succumb to the virus.

“That substantiates what we’ve been seeing, which is that the deaths can lag quite a bit after exposure and testing positive.”

Total deaths related to the COVID-19 pandemic in the county numbered 140 on Tuesday night, Sept. 22.

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