By BEVERLY BARELA & JONATHAN WHITAKER
Merced County residents entered a second week of a local public health emergency that’s only been intensified by statewide stay-at-home orders, widespread closures of public places, “non-essential” businesses and community events, and shortages of products at local supermarkets as worried residents go on buying sprees and distribution chains become strained.
As the Times went to press this week, the familiar — perhaps tired — words of health officials need to be repeated: “This is an evolving situation.”
Here’s what is known as of Wednesday morning:
- Merced County health officials have confirmed two cases of COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) in Merced County. One positive case is travel-related, the other involved a person who contracted the virus out of the county. In both cases, the virus was not contracted through local community spread. Both individuals are reportedly doing well in isolation and recovering at home. The number of local cases is expected to rise as more people are tested for the virus.
- A third confirmed case of coronavirus involves a public safety worker in the City of Merced who is now reportedly under quarantine in Madera County. The person was confirmed by city and county officials as a member of the Merced Police Department. County officials are not “counting” this individual’s case on the official daily update because the person in question happens to live in Madera County.
- The above case was reportedly linked to a mistrial in Courtroom 1 of the Merced County Superior Court. Those present were asked to contact the Department of Public Health and/or their health care provider. The court has since ordered the disinfection of Courtroom 1, and has not been informed of any individuals testing positive for COVID-19 having direct contact with court personnel and being in any buildings or courtrooms.
- Last week, two UC Merced students with symptoms related to the coronavirus were reportedly in isolation and awaiting test results. One of them has since tested negative for COVID-19, according to a UCM update.
- The Times has interviewed an Atwater resident who says she went through a harrowing personal and local healthcare ordeal after returning on Feb. 28 from a long trip in London. Michelle McRee, 53, said she was experiencing coronavirus symptoms, including a fever and severe breathing problems that became progressively worse, but over a weeklong period, she and her doctors were repeatedly told by the local Health Department that she didn’t meet the criteria for testing.
“If I don’t meet the criteria, who does?” she asked in frustration.
McRee says she was finally tested while hospitalized at Mercy Medical Center — and she praises the excellent care she received there.
The test came back negative.
However, she says she remains frustrated over her experience and the fear and guilt she felt about not knowing if she was infected with the virus. She is currently living in a household of six family members. She also believes it’s very possible that her coronavirus test result is not accurate.
- In California so far, there are 2,181 active cases and 42 deaths.
- Mercy Medical Center has set up Emergency Surge Tents outside its Emergency Room. The hospital has beefed up security, closed normal public visitation, and released information on “virtual urgent care visits” as an option for anyone who would like to discuss symptoms characteristic of COVID-19 with a health care professional.
“The confirmation of a first case of COVID-19 in our community further increases the urgency to expand efforts to protect ourselves and others from this virus,” said Dr. Kenneth Bird, the county’s public health officer. “Maintain social distancing. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Stay at home, especially if you are sick. Call ahead to your health care provider if you have symptoms consistent with the illness.”
Dr. Kristynn Sullivan, the supervising epidemiologist at Public Health, provided the Times with details about the county’s first positive test.
“We do contact investigations on positive test results, and we did that on this first case of a positive test result in Merced County, as well as the case of a positive test result that arose in Madera County involving a Merced City employee.
In the Merced County case, Sullivan said the patient’s doctor sent off the test through a commercial lab, and both the lab and the doctor informed the county of the results.
“The person is recovering at home and is doing well,” Sullivan said. “There is a set amount of time that anyone who tests positive must stay home, and that is 72 hours after their symptoms go away completely without the aid of medicine, or seven days after they first show symptoms, whichever is longer.
“We want to protect the individual’s privacy. The individual had just returned from out-of-county travel, outside of California, but in the United States. It was not travel to China and not travel on a cruise ship.”
When asked the difference between travel-related cases and community spread, Dr. Sullivan told the Times,“Travel-related is better than community spread because in community spread, we don’t know where the individual contracted the disease, and we don’t have a known link. It would be more difficult to stop the spread because we don’t know where it came from.
“As of yet, none of the individual’s contacts are symptomatic. The relevant contacts have been told to take appropriate actions depending on the level of contact, such as self-monitoring or self-quarantining. The contacts were not tested; the test is not accurate on people who don’t have symptoms. It could have a false positive or a false negative.”
Regarding officer who tested positive
This case is technically in Madera County where the individual presumably resides.
Dr. Sullivan told the Times, “The City of Merced, as the employer, would make the final decision on employment but from a public health perspective, there is no reason why we wouldn’t allow this individual to return to work once they have been cleared.
“We have reached out to everyone who was a relevant contact of that individual and advised them to take the proper precautions.”
Dr. Sullivan told the Times, “One of the two UC Merced students tested got negative results this morning [March 23], and the other one is pending. Those tests were done through the UC Merced laboratory system.
“If people have symptoms, they should contact their health care provider by phone and the provider will advise them, based on their symptoms, of the next step.”
Santa Clara County
Santa Clara County shares a border with Merced County.
The Santa Clara County Public Health Department as of March 23 confirmed 302 cases of coronavirus, with 10 deaths.
This is the largest number of cases of any Bay Area county.
Dr. Sullivan told the Times, “Santa Clara County is one of the counties with one of the highest rates of transmission in California. That county is a concern for the west side of Merced County, in particular. They did a shelter in place order a decent amount of time before the State of California did a shelter in place order and that cut down travel from Santa Clara County to other counties.
“Travel from Merced County to Santa Clara County could be a reason for someone to get the disease. We are recommending that residents of Merced County do not leave the county and also that they postpone non-urgent medical appointments that would take them to other counties.”
- DAILY UPDATES: The Merced County Department of Public Health website with coronavirus news is updated every day. It can be accessed online at: countyofmerced.com/coronavirus.
Also, the county has set up a call center which is available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. The number is 209-381-1180. The caller listens to an informational introduction and if their question is not answered, the caller can talk to a live person and get an answer.
IN RELATED NEWS:
Local government office closures, etc.
- COUNTY — As of March 23, county departments have temporarily changed access to their in-person services. Lobbies for various departments have been closed, including: Assessor, Auditor Controller, County Clerk, Elections & Passports, Recorder, Main Jail, Tax Collector, among others. For more, visit online at: countyofmerced.com.
- CITY OF MERCED — City of Merced employees have begun working remotely and public access to city buildings has been cut off. With the closure of City Hall, people can’t pay utility bills or make other payments in person.
Customers can make payments:
- By using the automated phone system at 209-388-7289
- Paying online at www.cityofmerced.org
- Using the drop box outside City Hall (check, cashier’s check or money order, no cash, please)
- Mailing payments (check, cashier’s check or money order, no cash, please)
Questions about utility bills can be emailed to [email protected] or people can phone 209-385-6841.
The City will not be charging people late fees and no new water services will be shut off if people cannot make their payments during this emergency. However, they still will be ultimately responsible for the payment of all bills.
- MERCED AIRPORT — The air carrier for the Merced Regional Airport, Boutique Airlines, has suspended operations. The airport is only open to general aviation users with planes at the facility.
- MERCED PARKS — Parks are open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. to encourage people to get exercise and fresh air, but users are cautioned to maintain social distance. Park restrooms are closed, as are other park facilities.