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Merced County nears ‘Red’ stage; schools obtain waivers

10 small, K-6 schools get OK for in-person instruction


Merced County is heading in the right direction in terms of the number of COVID-19 cases and the percentage of positive tests, local health officials say. Meanwhile, a waiver program is underway in Merced County which will allow kindergarten through sixth grade students in districts that apply to return to on-campus school, if the waivers are approved.

So far, 10 small private and public schools have had their reopening waivers approved by the state.

This region remains in the purple tier of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s four-tier color coded system that assesses counties based on their COVID-19 risk levels. However, tests are showing the more favorable red stage is within reach.

“Currently, we have a 5.3 percent positivity rate,” said Dr. Kristynn Sullivan, the county’s supervising epidemiologist on Tuesday. “The goal is to be less than 8 percent. So we’re meeting the criteria for positivity rate, and we’re waiting for our case rate to drop. …

“The case rate is twice as high as we need it to be. We are at 13.8 cases per 100,000 residents per day, but the state gives us a credit for testing rate and that means that if we’re doing a lot of testing, it’s adjusted to 9.9 cases per 100,000 per day. The rate is supposed to be 7 cases per 100,000 per day or fewer, so we’re getting there. For the county to keep the adjustment to 9.9, we have to keep testing at the rate we are testing; if we don’t keep the testing rate adjustment, we go back to 13.8 cases per 100,000 residents per day.

“We have to be on red tier metrics for two weeks but we still stay on purple, and then we move to red and have to stay on red tier for two weeks, and then we can open school campuses for in-person instruction.

“In the interim, however, K through 6 schools are eligible for a waiver and can bring back a subset of kids under more strict guidelines.  We just approved our first round of waivers and sent them to the state, and the state approved those 10 waivers on Sept. 14.”

The schools with waivers approved by the State are 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.

Describing the waiver program, Dr. Sullivan said, “The school districts have to apply for the waivers and create a school district plan, and then the Merced County Health Department submits that as well as a recommendation for approval to the State, and the State approves it.

“They chose K through 6 because their age is less likely to get severely ill and less likely to bring the virus home and transmit it to their family, and also the younger students need more supervision and they’re less independent so they have the hardest time with the distance learning.”

COVID-19 stats

On Sept. 15, the number of positive cases was 8,645.

The daily increase of new positive cases is slowing down. New cases were reported as 21 on Sept. 12, 38 on Sept. 13, and 16 on Sept. 14. The tally of Sept. 14 represents the lowest daily case count in the last one-and-a-half months, and is reminiscent of the tally at the end of June, before the July through mid-August surge.

Total hospitalizations were 665, and active hospitalizations were 61 total for in-county and out-of-county (the number could be less since the out-of-county hospitals may not be reporting regularly).

In-county hospitalizations numbered 11.

Total number of deaths was 131.

Dr. Sullivan explained, “The deaths are still increasing a little higher than the cases are, but that’s to be expected because it’s a lagging variable. A lot of the individuals passing have been sick for over a month.

“Currently, we have a 5.1 percent positivity rate. A week ago, it was 7.3 percent. The positivity rate is the percentage of tests we’ve done in the last seven days with a seven-day lag that are positive out of all the tests we’ve done. Negative tests take a little bit longer to come in so just to make sure we have all the data, we wait a week, and then it’s a summary of a week long period.  The goal is to be less than 8 percent. That’s one of the metrics to move forward in the tiers, but the state does want to see it even lower to make sure the spread is contained in the community.”

Testing sites

The Merced County Department of Public Health is focusing on the importance of testing to slow the spread of COVID-19 to facilitate the reopening of Merced County and has collaborated with the California Department of Public Health to secure an additional 500 tests per day administered at mobile testing sites.

Tests are available to all Merced County residents free of charge. Pre-registration and same-day registration for the mobile sites can be made online at Walk-in appointments are also welcome.

Mobile testing:

MERCED — Human Services Agency, 2135 Wardrobe Ave., Tuesday, Sept. 22, 8:30 a.m. – 6 p.m.

• ATWATER — Atwater Migrant Center, 9200 W. Westside Blvd., Wednesday, Sept. 23, noon – 7 p.m.

• WINTON — Central Valley Opportunity Center (CVOC), 6838 Bridget Ct., Thursday, Sept. 24, 8:30 a.m. – 6 p.m.

• DOS PALOS — Dollar General, 1111 Elgin Ave., Thursday, Sept. 17, 8:30 a.m. – 6 p.m.

• LOS BANOS — Los Banos Migrant Center, 8926 W. Henry Miller Rd., Friday, Sept. 18, noon – 7 p.m.

• GUSTINE — Al Goman Center, 745 Linden Ave., Gustine, Saturday, Sept.19, 8:30 a.m. – 6 p.m.

• PLANADA — Sacred Heart Church, 9317 Amistad St., Sunday, Sept. 20, 8:30 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Most affected areas

The Merced County Public Health Department website has been listing positive cases by city, and the cities of Merced and Atwater were shown to have the highest number of cases, hence they seemed to be the most affected by the virus. But this has changed due to a better metric.

Dr. Sullivan told the Times, “We have actually started looking at the cases per 1,000 residents, and that’s a better metric because it accounts for the fact that some places are larger and would have more cases. We started looking at cases by community, and it presents a different picture.  That shows Livingston has the highest number of cases per resident or per capita, followed by Winton, and then Delhi.

“Livingston had the Foster Farms outbreak, and any time there is an outbreak in a facility, that drives the numbers up.  Determining why Winton and Delhi have a high number of cases per capita is a little more tricky.  It could be due to a high rate of essential workers, or businesses where workers are stationed a little bit closer, or multi generational housing, or lack of ability to quarantine or isolate.

“We are adding this information to the Dashboard on our website, and hopefully it will be there this week.”

Latest outbreaks

The county lists outbreaks where there are three or more lab-confirmed cases linked to a workplace within 14 days.

An additional COVID-19 outbreak was reported on September 14 at Hilmar Christian Children’s Center, a day care.  The flare-up raised the number of active outbreaks in the county to 19.

Dr. Sullivan explained, “This is not our first outbreak in a child care center and is not surprising because of how close the kids are and how close the adults need to be to the kids.

“Kids tend not to spread the virus significantly and an outbreak at a child care facility is thus more contained than at a workplace of all adults.”

Flu season

Says Sullivan: “Flu season is almost here, and we’re very cognizant of it because we don’t want to have flu and COVID at the same time.  We hope the prevention measures of one will help prevent the other.  What is most preventative for flu is hand washing and staying home when you’re ill.  Masking would be less effective for flu, but all the other measures in place for COVID will help prevent flu as well.

“The prediction is a milder flu season and we’re hopeful that’s the case, but we’re being very proactive in terms of recommending a flu shot especially because the at- risk groups could get flu and COVID at the same time and that would be a dangerous situation.  Flu season officially starts on October 1, and we are recommending that people get their flu shots as soon as they’re available, especially for the high risk groups.”

New findings

Sullivan: “We do have people who experience long-term effects such as heart problems, kidney disease, and COVID fatigue where people are tired all the time.  Further, some COVID patients report they get other infections and illnesses a lot more.

“At the same time, there are certainly people who recover and have no lasting repercussions.

“COVID symptoms are unlike the flu in that the flu attacks the respiratory system, but COVID attacks other bodily systems as well.

“Is COVID a respiratory disease, or is it just acquired through the respiratory system?  Some of the symptoms are not respiratory like loss of taste and smell.

“There are a lot of theories, but it’s so new still that there hasn’t been enough time or data over time to be able to determine much definitively.  We’re rounding on a year since the first cases in China, but it’s going to be a long term endeavor to find out more.”

Virus tracking

To handle California’s high volume of test results (both positive and negative), a successor tracking system for COVID to supplement one that is not working well is being developed by Optum Insight Inc.  It will allow the State to better understand how and where the virus is spreading.

Dr. Sullivan told the Times, “It will be available in MercedCounty. We have a data reporting system from the State that we use for communicable disease which is relatively old in terms of software, and that was the same one brought on board for COVID.

“But the volume of COVID cases is unlike any other communicable disease we’ve ever dealt with in California, and it did not have the ability to handle that level of volume.

“So the State is basically supplementing that system with the new system.  From what we understand, it will work seamlessly with the system that already exists, and we will transition to whatever system the State is currently using. There is no time line for when the new system will be in place.”

Hispanics community

Sullivan says, “Seventy percent of the county’s positive cases are Hispanics. This has been consistent across the whole course of the disease. To address this issue, the Merced County Health Department and other partners have distributed a lot of masks to people within our ag community, and other masks have gone to ag employers for distribution to their employees.”

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