Merced County Times Newspaper
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Merced County Public Health Officials: STAY AT HOME, COVID-19 CASES ARE SURGING


Merced County began feeling the impact of the governor’s new shutdown orders earlier this week as the total number of COVID-19 cases reported since the start of the pandemic neared the 14,000 mark. 

Local bars, wineries, hair salons, barber shops, personal care services, museums, zoos, aquariums, and movie theaters have shut down. Hotels and lodging were open for critical infrastructure support only.

Restaurants can no longer serve meals indoors or outdoors; though they can provide take-out.

On the positive side, outdoor recreational facilities are allowed, as well as indoor operation of retail at 20 percent capacity.

The purpose of the closure order effective Dec. 7 is to decrease the number of COVID-19 cases so as to curb the escalation in the need for available ICU beds in the region, and to build the number of beds back up.

The order requires regions in California with less than 15 percent of ICUs available, such as the San Joaquin Valley, which includes Merced County, to follow the closure rules for three weeks, minimum.

Dr. Kristynn Sullivan, Merced County’s supervising epidemiologist, told the Times, “In the last four days, we’ve seen one of the highest volumes of cases since the beginning of the pandemic.

“New cases are skyrocketing in Merced County. On Dec. 5, 280 new cases were reported, Dec. 6, 318 and Dec. 7, 148.

“The Friday before [Dec. 4], we had 265, so between Friday [Dec. 4] and Monday [Dec. 7], there were over 1,000 new cases.

“Comparing this trend to the last surge in July and August, the current combined four days totaling 1,000 is essentially tied with a four-day period back in August.

“Because these numbers are barely including the outset of the anticipated Thanksgiving holiday surge, my best estimate is that the numbers for this week will be past the highest numbers in August.”


ICU capacity

There are five regions across California described by the State, and the San Joaquin Valley is the worst in regard to ICU capacity.

Dr. Sullivan explained, “The region of San Joaquin Valley has a smaller availability of ICU beds anyway.

“We have 5.6 percent of the ICU beds in our region are available, and the goal is getting above 15 percent.

“The issue is we’re being looked at as a region because of patient flow.  A lot of our patients go out to Stanislaus County and other counties, so we have to work together as a region to decrease our cases and increase our ICU capacity.

“As of Dec. 8, there were 73 active hospitalizations of Merced County residents due to COVID in facilities inside and outside the county.

“Merced County has a total 24 ICU beds. We have 15 beds in use, so we have 9 available.

“Typically in Merced County what we’ve seen is about 10 percent of cases end up in the hospital, and of those hospitalizations, about 12 percent end up in the ICU.  So we end up losing capacity both in the hospital and in our ICU.

“However, Mercy Merced has a better ICU capacity than last week.  They’re currently at just over 50 percent capacity for the ICU.  It does fluctuate pretty dramatically, but that is positive news.  A lot of it is that people are getting better and being transferred to a main floor of the hospital.”


How will the stay at home order help?

Dr. Sullivan told the Times, “The intention of the stay at home order is to flatten the curve enough to be able to have our hospitals keep up.

“The idea is just to really encourage everybody to stay home as much as possible.

“If everybody were to do that, we’ve shown that it does work. It blunts the number of cases and gets it down to a more manageable amount of spread so our resources aren’t overwhelmed.

“The concern is that because this has been going on so long and the resource funds that were available in previous shut downs are not as readily available, there won’t be as much compliance as there was in the past.  Without compliance, we won’t have a good result.

“For example, there was a Federal stimulus package passed in April and those funds are mostly expended, and they expire at the end of December.

“Without another Federal aid package coming through, there are a lot fewer resources available.

“It is putting businesses in an impossible situation, and making it more difficult [for people to follow the order].

“However, what is really frustrating is the people who are not taking this seriously and doing whatever they want. We understand COVID fatigue is rampant, but without community buy-in, we will continue to see COVID cases get worse and deaths increase.”


COVID fatalities

“We’ve had 198 COVID deaths of Merced County residents in all to date [Dec. 8].  This includes four new deaths just today.  Although four deaths in a day sounds like a lot, we report fatalities as we’re informed of them so sometimes the reporting is not the same day as the death. There are other things that could lead to a delay in us putting it on the dashboard.  But we have seen increased deaths in the last week and that’s expected because we’re surging again. At this point, it’s more often than not that we have a new death to report in a week’s time. It’s a lagging variable, so as our cases keep going up, we’ll see that statistic keep going up.”


When can the Governor’s order be lifted?

“The stay at home order is in place for three weeks, no matter what.  At the end of that time, the State will look at our projections for ICU capacity for the next four weeks to see if we’re trending in the right direction and are projected to be over 15 percent and if so, the order could be lifted.

“The State is still determining the method to move regions out of that order, so that could change things.

How is contact tracing going?

“With our surge the way it is now, we have to prioritize which cases we reach out to. Everyone gets an email survey or an attempt at a call.  We have to prioritize people who have tested recently or people who are at highest risk.  When we ask people these days, their understanding of where they’ve been exposed gets less because as community spread gets higher, there are just more potential places they may have gotten exposed.

“Initially, contact tracing was much easier because when we asked where have you been, it was usually ‘nowhere’, and when we asked who have you been around, it was ‘my family’. Now it is much more complex.


COVID statistics

“Positivity rate is going way up. It’s over 12 percent right now [Dec. 8]. At the beginning of last week, we were about 9 percent which is still too high [the goal is less than 8 percent], but this is to be expected with our increase in cases.

“There are 37.1 cases per 100,000 residents per day, and it’s supposed to be under 7.

“Equity quartile has been remaining fairly stable at 9.6 percent right now, which is still in Purple, but is lower than our overall county test positivity, which is 12.3 percent.

“I would anticipate that it is going to get a bit worse in the coming weeks, and that will be due to Thanksgiving numbers. I believe we’re just beginning to see them.

“The surge will come about two weeks after a holiday.


Vaccine news

“It is the hope that the vaccine will help.  We are getting a very small number of vaccines later this month, and they will be going to the highest risk individuals, including those in Skilled Nursing Facilities. It will take time to vaccinate the majority of the population.

“We’re already hearing people say they’re not going to get the vaccine.  For the vaccine to be effective, we’ll need people to take the vaccine.

“We need to get to herd immunity through the vaccine. This happens when a certain amount of people are vaccinated and are then immune to the disease. A vaccine is a way to reach herd immunity without actually having to get sick.


Additional testing sites

The Merced County Department of Public Health Department has expanded its capacity to provide additional COVID-19 testing to all Merced County residents through collaboration with the State of California, and wants to emphasize the importance of testing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The recent increase in case counts and test positivity rate in the County makes the need to test even more imperative.

The additional mobile testing locations will be available to Merced County residents free of charge, regardless of insurance status, Dec. 8 through Dec. 30.

Pre-registration and same day registration is available online at   or by calling 1-888-634-1123.  Results are typically sent via email within three to five days.


As of Dec. 8, there were 40 outbreaks, including Foster Farms in Livingston, which is an outbreak that recurred.

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