Merced County finally makes it into the Red Tier status, meaning less restrictions on businesses
Region is last in state to leave Purple Tier level of California's COVID-19
By BEVERLY BARELA & JONATHAN WHITAKER
“We are official in the Red Tier,” Rebecca Nanyonjo-Kemp told the Times right before press time on Wednesday morning.
The director of Merced County’s Public Health Department said local officials were able to move things along with their counterparts in Sacramento.
“Red Tier will be posted today [April 14], and it will be effective today,” she said with enthusiasm. “A lot of restrictions are lifted, and the state and county Public Health websites will show what is permissible in each of the tiers.”
Describing the hold up on Merced County moving from the most restrictive Purple Tier sooner, Dr. Kristynn Sullivan, Merced County’s supervising epidemiologist, told the Times, “What happened was two weeks ago, the county was moving into the Red Tier easily. Then a data backlog pushed us into the Purple in terms of case rate. We did truly did have more cases than originally reported, but the state classified that as an increase and it wasn’t really an increase. Throughout the month, we had a decrease, but because of the way they were comparing week to week for the Blueprint, it looked like we artificially had an increase, and we didn’t.
“So that’s what we adjudicated to the state. That was successful, but they didn’t move us into Red, so on April 13, we had to go back to the state for more conversation about giving us the full credit for that adjudication and moving us into Red.”
Dr. Sullivan explained that the good thing about going into Red is the state says that you won’t be pulled back into a less restrictive tier unless there is a true surge.
She said, “The only way we would move back to Purple is if things went really sideways like an increase in cases, test positivity and hospitalizations.
“We have only seven people hospitalized in Merced County at this time, and the positivity rate is 4.2 percent, which is well under the 8 percent required, and the daily case rate is 9.1 per 100,000 as of April 13, which is under the required 10. Monday [April 12], we were at 10.1, so we were right on the cusp.
“The key to preventing a surge is increased vaccination. The concern we have is if people don’t go and get vaccinated, that could put us more at a risk for a surge.
Pause on J&J vaccine
Merced County health officials promptly canceled various vaccination clinics on Tuesday as their federal counterparts called for a nationwide “pause” in the use of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine while they study serious illnesses that developed in six women who received doses.
All the women, between the ages of 18 and 48, developed a rare blood-clotting disorder within one to three weeks of vaccination. So far, about seven million people in the United States have received Johnson & Johnson shots, and another 10 million doses have been shipped out to the states, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The rare side effect is associated only with the “one-and-done dose” J&J vaccine, officials say, and is not an issue with other available vaccines that are administered in two doses.
The J&J vaccine is being paused at this time out of an abundance of caution, they say, while officials investigate these issues and determine a best course of action moving forward.
The recently-opened OptumServe vaccination site at the Atwater Community Center — which was administering the J&J vaccine — was closed until further notice. Less than a week ago, the new vaccination site was called a major win for the community as the county pushes for a more equitable share of vaccine doses from the state.
Additional clinics across Merced County will be scheduled once enough Pfizer/Moderna vaccine is secured, local health officials said Tuesday.
Merced County’s Nanyonjo-Kemp said, “The evaluation should probably occur over the next week or so. They’re ramping up evaluation efforts, so we should probably know something about the status of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine in five to seven days.”
Merced County has been transitioning to the State’s “My Turn” system for vaccine scheduling. With this change, the county will no longer be using the VaccinateMercedCounty.com to schedule appointments. However, the website will continue to house general vaccine information and will direct people to the new “My Turn” website: MyTurn.ca.gov. Anyone who would like to receive vaccination moving forward is encouraged to schedule an appointment at MyTurn.ca.gov.
Meanwhile, reactions among Merced residents about the J&J vaccine pause appeared to be mixed as viewed on social media sites and through responses to the Times.
Some people pointed out that according to the most recent data, there was less than “one in a million” people who experienced the blood clot disorder after receiving the vaccine. Others said they were worried a pause in vaccinations would deter more people from getting the vaccine in the future.
Ana Mendez of Merced told the Times she received the J&J vaccine less than a week ago, and she felt only minor side effects after 24 hours. She was pleased to take the vaccine after having contracted the COVID-19 virus earlier in the pandemic, suffered through the illness, and then recovered from it.
“It’s frustrating because you hear different things about the various vaccines, and you don’t know who or what to believe,” Mendez said. “I’m concerned about the news concerning blood clots, but I also plan to stay active, keep my body moving more often, just in case.”
Ricardo Romero, a 25-year-old UC Merced graduate, said he received his J&J dose less than a month ago.
“I got a COVID-like reaction the following day. It only lasted 8 hours and I have not felt anything else since then,” he said. “Although [the J&J news] is alarming, with the vaccine being so new and still using previous technology rather than mRNA, there are bound to be issues. Unfortunately those women had those side affects, but from a statistical standpoint, there’s too few cases to be concerned if you received the vaccine recently.
“Clearly it was enough for the CDC and FDA to pause administering the vaccine, but that’s only to investigate the cases. There are other medications that have a much higher possibility to give you adverse side affects such as birth control for women, and recently over the counter meds like ibuprofen.”
The CDC recommended that people who have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine within the past month contact their doctors if they experience severe headaches, abdominal pain, leg pain or shortness of breath. Officials said the most common symptom of the disorder was a persistent, moderate to severe headache that begins six days or later after the shot. They said the risk of dangerous blood clots was “very low” for people who received Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine more than a month ago.