Merced County residents urged to follow guidelines to curb COVID surge
Outbreaks reported at three local high schools; In-Shape in Merced
Since its slide back to purple tier on Nov. 16, Merced County has continued to show a spike in COVID-19 cases, and the Merced County Public Health Department cautions that following the guidelines is imperative.
The state pays strict attention to a county’s positivity rate, which needs to be less than 8 percent, and the number of new cases per 100,000 residents per day, which needs to be less than 7.
Dr. Kristynn Sullivan, Merced County’s supervising epidemiologist, told the Times, “As of Nov. 20, we are at a 6.8 percent positivity rate and 17.5 cases per day per 100,000 residents.
“We’ve been holding pretty steady around that number for about a week.
“This is still delayed data so it will probably go up again.
“Yesterday [Nov. 19], we had 135 new cases and the day before that [Nov. 18], we had 87. On Tuesday [Nov. 17], we had 110, and Monday [Nov. 16], we had 96.
“It’s been a pretty high volume week and is similar to what we saw during our surge in June, and we think it’ll probably be worse this time due to the holidays, cold weather and COVID fatigue.
“The suggestions for Thanksgiving are keep your celebrations virtual if you can and if you are going to be gathering, keep it small, less than 12 people and less than three households. Have dinner outside if you can or keep the windows open. “Keep the celebration shorter also, like a couple hours, rather than have an all day get together.
“Gathering with people who are local is safer. The highest risk is large gatherings of people from all over, especially out of the State of California. Most of the rest of the states in the country are having worse issues than California in higher case rates, hospitalizations and lack of capacity in hospitals.”
More COVID metrics
As of Nov. 20, the County’s total cases number 10,986, there are 51 Merced County residents hospitalized anywhere, and there have been176 deaths.
When will the vaccine arrive in Merced County?
Dr. Sullivan told the Times, “We are making good progress on the vaccine front. We’re making plans for vaccine distribution in phases. We won’t get a lot of vaccine right at first. Once it’s distributed in the County, first, we will vaccinate high risk health care workers and first responders, and then it’ll move into high risk populations such as 65 plus, and we’re hoping in the late Spring, April to May, we’ll have vaccine for the general public.
We don’t know whether we’ll get Pfizer or Moderna but the State will distribute the vaccine through the county networks once it comes in.”
As of Nov. 19, there are 22 outbreaks, including those that are new at local high schools: Buhach Colony High School in Atwater, and Merced High School and El Capitan High School in Merced.
Dr. Sullivan said, “There is a newly reported outbreak at In-Shape Health Club, Yosemite Avenue in Merced, but the club will continue to be open for outdoor activities.
Now that In-Shape customers have to be outside, it’s going to be safer because outdoors is definitely safer if you maintain social distancing. If you maintain social distancing outside, you don’t need to wear a mask, but you do inside, no matter what.”
How is the surge being handled by the State and the County?
Dr. Sullivan told the Times, “The State of California has put the emergency brake on so most of the state, including Merced County, is back on purple so it eliminates indoor gyms, indoor dining at restaurants and indoor church services.
“The state also just implemented a limited stay at home order for the hours 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. The intention is those hours are rife for drinking and partying and it’s an attempt to curb that, and just convey that people should be staying in their homes as much as possible.
What is the nature of the surge and how does it compare to the last surge?
Dr. Sullivan explained, “We’ve seen a very rapid increase in our cases and our test positivity rate and that’s the biggest indication that we’ve seen a spread in disease.
We’re seeing that the number of people who are testing positive is higher, even though we are increasing testing.
“At this point, it’s about half and half known exposures like family clusters, workplace outbreaks, or gatherings where someone was positive, but then the other half is community spread, and those are the cases that are the most frustrating for us because they are harder to contain because we don’t know where we need to focus.
“When we see the increase in community spread, it’s like in July where we started to see an increase in cases and people did not know where they were exposed.
“Cases spiking does mirror the community behavior. In May, we had really low cases and then in June, we opened everything up. That opening was too fast probably, and also indicated to people everything is open and back to normal so there was a lot more mixing happening, so then our cases skyrocketed.
“A lot of different things drove our cases. Some of our big outbreaks we were able to contain, like the skilled nursing facilities and Foster Farms.
“But at that time, the numbers were so scary, and for the first time people started to see an increase in deaths.
“So then there was more seriousness about masking and other safety measures. I think those things really helped. The weather was nice so it was easy to do things outside and have good ventilation.
“But with this incoming wave that we’re at the beginning of, it’s cold so people are moving inside. We expected to see an increase in cases when things opened but the goal was to keep that low and manageable, and that’s not what’s been happening.
“I think there’s quite a bit of COVID fatigue. People are thinking how COVID is affecting their lives and they miss normalcy, and they miss gatherings. I think a lot of people don’t think it’s serious any more and they compare it to flu, which is just not accurate at all.
“Just to put it in perspective, in an average year Merced County has about 46 deaths from both flu and pneumonia combined. We’re up to 175 deaths since April, which is less than a year, from COVID.
“The fatalities are mostly of those age 65 and older.
“But the philosophy of just protecting the nursing homes is easier said than done. The staff leaves and they have family and friends they get together with.
“About 2/3 of our deaths in the County are ages 65 and older, but one-third of the deaths are of people less than 65-years-old.”