Merced County To Governor: ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!
Leaders react as region moves to most restrictive COVID-19 'Purple' status
“We have done everything he [the governor] has asked
and nothing is working. … The silent pandemic
[mental health crisis] is worse than the pandemic
we are dealing with. … We have to take the hand away
from the dictatorship of what he is trying
to impose on us. He doesn’t know Merced County.
I think he has been here one time.
I think he flew through and shook a lot of hands.”
– Supervisor Daron McDaniel,
calling for regional resistance to new state mandates,
including among leaders in Fresno,
Madera, Kings and Tulare counties.
By BEVERLY BARELA & JONATHAN WHITAKER
Frustrated county leaders, residents and business owners are taking aim and returning fire at the governor, the state’s Department of Public Health, and this region’s sudden return to the strictest set of state-mandated closures linked to COVID-19 testing.
Merced County and 40 other counties across the state were pulled back to the Purple tier (‘widespread risk’) on Monday. Local health officials told the Times the new tier status was announced one day early “to allow the community to have adequate time to adjust practices to meet state safety guidance immediately.”
Because of an unprecedented case surge, they said, tier assignments (which were routinely made on Tuesdays) are now allowed to take place on any day of the week, and could also happen more than once per week. The county had previously been in the less restrictive Red tier since Oct. 6.
Nevertheless, confusion quickly spread among local leaders, business owners and residents over the timeline of the new restrictions that will affect retail stores, restaurants and churches, just to name a few.
Did we have 24 hours? Did we have a week? Could we slow-walk the new mandates without fear of state patrols investigating the region? Could our local governments appeal the Health Order?
The frustration was painfully obvious at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisor’s meeting.
“I am so frustrated of being at the short end of this,” said Supervisor Scott Silveira. “The state does whatever they want to do with no consideration or care for how it affects us here, the local policy makers, the ones that are going to get the phone calls.”
Silveira said he had several business owners in his district — including restaurant owners already facing colder weather and difficulties with outdoor dining — waiting for an immediate call back on possible closures.
“I’m going to point it out,” Silveira continued. “I know he [Govenor Newsom] has apologized on multiple occasions, but the governor sees fit that he can go out to a party of 13 or more people, and maybe he didn’t expect that many people, but there was a reporter who catches it … It’s just very frustrating. … I’m done. …
“I am sick and tired of being dictated to by the California Department of Public Health on what’s best for Merced County. We are being put at a disadvantage. They know this. They know that we are below the median household income, that we have a lack of access to health care, but yet they are putting unrealistic expectations on testing. We are doing everything we can. We are pushing it out on social media. We are telling people: Go get tested, go get tested. The numbers don’t lie. If you live in a more affluent area and have better access to health care, you are going to get tested more. If you live in a poorer rural area like we all represent, it’s not so easy to get there. And oh, by the way, when you got to go to work, and you are depending on that income, you are not going to take time to do that testing. And so they [state officials] are going to hold that against us?”
Said Supervisor Lloyd Pareira, “We are penalizing our economy, and I think probably not increasing the safety of our citizens at the same time.”
Supervisor Daron McDaniel called for regional resistance, including among leaders in Fresno, Madera, Kings and Tulare counties. “We have done everything he [the governor] has asked and nothing is working. … The silent pandemic [mental health crisis] is worse than the pandemic we are dealing with. … We have to take the hand away from the dictatorship of what he is trying to impose on us. He doesn’t know Merced County. I think he has been here one time. I think he flew through and shook a lot of hands.”
During the meeting, local business owners let their frustrations be known through Facebook posts.
Roy Mercado, the owner of two downtown Merced restaurants, posted a comment in all caps: “KEEP BUSINESSES OPEN … MY EMPLOYEES ARE HURTING FINANCIALLY … NO GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES ARE HURTING FINANCIALLY.”
Mercado’s comments were echoed by other local restaurant owners the Times talked to on Tuesday afternoon. Some were still waiting to find out for sure what changes they needed to make and how much time they had to comply. Options were being weighed — should they invest in outdoor tents, heaters? And how are they going to afford it?
Back at the board meeting, Lisa Coelho, who owns a photography business, posted this on Facebook: “There is not time to WAIT for updates and push this off until later. You need to appeal NOW or not enforce it. This virus is not going away, just like the flu, just like influenza. We have to function. You have people waiting IN A LINE outside the few gyms open TO STAY HEALTHY. Kids suffering from depression and abuse. The elderly suffering. What is the percentage of small businesses that make up the county? Mental health IS the silent killer.”
Dr. Sima Asadi, a longtime Merced pediatrician, addressed the board in person about the so-called “silent pandemic,” saying she has never been more concerned about the physical, emotional, mental, cognitive, social and nutritional health of the children in Merced County.
“I have data from our ER that serves as evidence of a dramatic negative effect on the mental health of our youth. First of all, the total number of visits doubled in September compared to April of 2020, and the number of visits for self harm quadrupled. Secondly, the mean age is lower and the age range includes younger children during the months of this pandemic when children were supposed to be in school and were not. This means that while in the past, I was used to seeing children in the 12 to 17 ages showing up to the ER, I am now routinely responding to ages 10 to 14 at a rate that has quadrupled. Clearly, this is not just an “adolescent problem.” Some ER visits are for 4-year-olds, while others range from 6 to 12 years of age. Twenty children visited the ER for mental health issues more than once from April to October.”
Hearing this and other comments, Supervisor Silveira asked county staff about a possible appeal to counter the state health mandates.
County CEO Jim Brown told leaders that his team had filed an adjudication with the state. However, he admitted he had no direct answers about the fast-changing state policies regarding the movement of counties from state-mandated tiers and the possible outcome of the adjudication process itself. He emphasized that the Health Order restrictions are coming down from the state, not local authorities.
Tuesday’s, Board of Supervisors meeting started off with a “legislative update” from State Senator Anna Caballero. The senator urged leaders and residents to take precautions this Thanksgiving, and suggested families keep celebrations modest and refrain from inviting over guests from outside close family circles … “so that we can celebrate more holdays in the future with our loved ones.” She said vaccines are expected to arrive in the first quarter of 2021, but the first people to be vaccinated will be health care workers, first responders and those at high risk of developing complications from virus exposure.
COVID-19 case surge
Meanwhile, the regional trend for the past several weeks has been elevated COVID-19 case counts and an ongoing continued rise of the test positivity rate.
Amalia Madrigal-Hernandez, a spokesperson for the county’s Public Health Department, told the Times on Tuesday: “In order for Merced County to get back to Red tier again, it will need to remain in the Purple tier for at least three weeks and meet the Red tier metrics for two of those weeks before returning to the Red tier.”
The Purple tier is the most restrictive tier for business reopenings under California’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy.
Essential businesses will still be open in the same way they are, but the following modifications to businesses and entities must be implemented immediately:
• All Retail – Open indoors with modifications (max 25 percent capacity)
• Shopping Centers – Open indoors with modifications (max 25 percent capacity, closed food courts)
• Museums, Zoos, and Aquariums – Outdoor Only with modifications
• Places of Worship – Outdoor Only with modifications
• Movie Theaters – Outdoor Only with modifications
• Gyms and Fitness Centers – Outdoor Only with modifications
• Restaurants – Outdoor Only with modifications.
Key factors the state considered in making its tier-change decision were the number of cases per 100,000 residents per day, which needs to be less than 7, the positivity rate, which needs to be less than 8 percent, and the health equity quartile positivity (testing positivity in a county’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods), which needs to not significantly lag behind the county’s overall positivity rate.
As of Nov. 16, the unadjusted case rate per 100,000 per day excluding prisoners (4 day lag) was 16.1. The adjusted case rate was 16.8.
The positivity rate was 6.1 percent on Tuesday, Nov. 17. It was 5 percent on Nov. 12.
These numbers had been increasing over the past week.
The health equity quartile positivity rate had also been increasing over the past week, and was at 6 percent on Nov. 16. There is a 7-day lag in this metric.
More COVID-19 Metrics
As of Nov. 17, the total number of laboratory-confirmed cases since testing began in the county was 10,662. The probable active cases in the last 14 days was listed at 843.
The total number of Merced County residents hospitalized in any county as of Nov. 17 was 39, and the number of Merced County residents hospitalized within Merced County was 20.
The total number of deaths in Merced County on Nov. 17 was 174. (On Nov. 13, this number was 169.) The death rate has increased over the past month. The five recent deaths adds to 11 others reported in the last two weeks, compared to six during the preceding two-week period.
Schools in the Purple tier are not permitted to reopen for in-person instruction unless they receive a waiver from the Merced County Public Health Department for grades TK (Transitional Kindergarten) through 6.
Schools that have reopened for in-person instruction are not required to close even though the County moved back to Purple Tier.
Current outbreaks total 16.
Yamato Colony MCOE Assets program and Merquin Elementary School in Stevinson were new outbreaks reported in the past week.
No outbreaks from last week have been eliminated.
In the past week, there were no new outbreaks at places that already had outbreaks and were cleared.
The Merced County Public Health Department continues to see cases from the drive-through testing at Castle Family Centers Urgent Care in Atwater, but they are becoming more widespread throughout the community.
For current data on COVID-19 in Merced County, those interested can go online to the County’s dashboard at: https://mercedcounty.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/f005de09bbbe4171a8bba19d74b2347b
Data is updated at 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, unless it is a holiday.