It’s 10 a.m. on Wednesday morning, April 8, and the County Times presses are about to start a gradual turn that will pick up speed, and then hum along in a steady roll.
In a week’s time, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 (coronavirus) in Merced County has surged from 10 to 34, and one resident has died from complications related to the fast-spreading illness.
Officials described the resident as “a male under the age of 65 with underlying health conditions.” Due to confidentiality laws, additional identifying information was not released.
“The age of this individual highlights the fact that everyone is vulnerable to this disease,” said Dr. Rebecca Nanyonjo-Kemp, the county’s Public Health director.
Dr. Kenneth Bird, a Public Health officer, added: “This tragic death from COVID-19 of one of our own saddens us all, and serves as a reminder that our community is not going to be spared the terrible effects of this illness …
“All of us must do everything we can to halt its spread locally. Stay at home, wash your hands, cover your coughs and sneezes, and wear a cloth mask if you need to leave home for an essential purpose.”
Indeed, the start of this week was highlighted by an order issued from Dr. Bird that directed health care providers, employers, and residents to follow more aggressive directives and increased vigilance to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Bird repeated: “All residents are strongly encouraged to wear a cloth face covering, whenever out in public to reduce the spread of the illness. This is in addition to the continued requirement of at least 6 feet of social distancing.
Five of the COVID-19 cases were added to the county’s list on Tuesday afternoon, and as of the Times press deadline on Wednesday morning, three of the people on the official list have recovered from their illness.
Most of the cases, 20, are reportedly from East Merced County, with 14 from West Merced County. A total of nine people contacted the virus from “person to person transmission” (described as close contact or between family members); eight people were linked to “community spread,” and eight were said to be “acquired out of jurisdiction.”
Interestingly, as it was last week, the cases were evenly split by gender — 10 males and 10 females in East Merced County, and the ratio was 7 and 7 in West Merced County.
The majority of cases — 22 — involved people within the age group 18-49, and only three cases were listed in the group 65 and over.
In the entire state of California, there were 16,309 active cases, and 387 deaths as of Wednesday morning — about 26 days since Merced County proclaimed a local and public health emergency, and about 20 days since residents were ordered to stay at home except to perform or receive essential services.
Over the same period, there have been no public, or even restricted, press conferences by this region’s top leaders — in stark contrast to what residents are seeing on national TV with the president, task force groups and governors meeting on a regular basis with reporters. One local media briefing was announced early last week by the Sheriff’s Department, but promptly called off about an hour later.
Members of the Board of Supervisors attended a meeting last Tuesday; however, the event was closed to the public with the exception of public commentary that was allowed by email and then read out loud.
County leaders, along with those of cities across the region, were featured in a video that was sent out through various social media outlets. In the production, leaders gave words of encouragement and urged residents to follow the announced safety precautions.
On Monday, the Merced City Council held a meeting “telephonically,” and people could tune in online or on public access television to hear the proceedings. Only three of the city leaders were visible on screens from their individual remote locations. Officials said the meeting was not held in the Civic Center “in order to protect the public and city staff and the council from the coronavirus.” People were allowed to submit public comments electronically and by voicemail before the start of the meeting.
It was a relatively quick, down-to business council meeting that included an update on the coronavirus situation in the region and a few other procedural matters. There were no official “public hearing items” on the agenda. Interestingly, Assistant City Clerk John Tressider did announce that future meetings will include live comments from residents who wish to speak during a “public hearing item.” The process would include giving the city a call-back number and then being ready to speak by phone during the meeting.
Most of the emails sent to city leaders on Monday were in regard to a growing local drumbeat to place a moratorium on evictions during the COVID-19 shutdown.
“We are encouraging you as our elected leaders to support the call for an eviction moratorium for all,” wrote Eduardo Castro, the president of the California Central Valley Journey for Justice. “At this time we have not seen the reality of who will be helped by the stimulus money from the federal government that will be received. We know that many do not have any income but continue with daily expenses and may even not be receiving any help. This will be in line with helping to stop the spread of the virus along with minimizing the stress that our many community members are feeling.”
In response, Mayor Pro-Tem Matthew Serratto called for a discussion on the matter, saying “I think the community deserves to have that issue heard.” City Manager Steve Carrigan said he was looking into the situation and will possibly have a report for the April 20 or May 4 meeting. Councilman Delray Shelton, who also works for the Merced County Sheriff’s Office, added that the department is not enforcing evictions during the current pandemic crisis.
Concern grows over voices being heard
Meanwhile, the Times talked to a local human rights activist about concerns she has regarding public comment at meetings, homeless issues and evictions.
When the Board of Supervisors held its last meeting on March 31, Gloria Sandoval was a little late getting in some questions about an item on the agenda she was interested in commenting on.
Sandoval, a coordinator for the group Central Valley Journey For Justice, says she understands the extraordinary circumstances local government leaders have found themselves in during a pandemic and stay-at-home orders; however, she urges that the issue of public interaction and hearing from our leaders is of the upmost importance.
“It’s really frustrating to see this change in the way the public is participating,” she told the Times. “I wasn’t successful in trying to get my questions in.”
Sandoval was concerned about Item No. 24 — a request from Public Works for leaders to approve a bid contract process to demolish the Kane Building located at 2150 M Street in downtown Merced. The mid-1960s building was most recently occupied by Probation and the Public Defender’s offices. The reasoning for the demolition was due to “antiquated buildings systems that are costly to repair and not feasible to replace. Remodeling was also ruled out. The price for the job — already accounted for in the current fiscal budget — is $600,000.
The item was unanimously approved by the board without discussion.
“My first reaction was — $600,000 to demolish this good building?” Sandoval said. “If it’s empty, why can’t it be used to temporarily house or give services to homeless people in town. We keep moving them along from their tents, and people are hiding even more now during the pandemic. .. I don’t know how much money is being spent on closing camps, picking up items, and storing them. …
“I get a little frustrated because it seems to me that there is this feeling that all homeless people are the same. They are not the same. Some are able and willing to assist others in the same situation. It’s hard to know what’s going on, but when I have ventured outside, I still see the tents.”
Sandoval also expressed concern about possible evictions in town.
“People are scared of evictions as more and more people become unemployed,” she said. “There are some hopes with this stimulus thing, but there are too many issues with it. If you don’t have a bank account, it’s unknown right now when you are going to get a check, if you get one at all. … We are all in this together. We really have to take care of each other. And this pandemic is only growing. … We need some leadership here. We need to make extraordinary measures.”
(STORY UPDATE – 9:40 p.m. 4-8-20): According to Merced County officials, this week, the Care and Shelter Branch of the Merced County Emergency Operations Center continued to make contact with homeless individuals in our cities and unincorporated communities to evaluate their health, provide food boxes, and other assistance. Any homeless individual suspected of having COVID-19 will be provided healthcare to help limit community spread.
Mercy accepting mask donations
Mercy Medical Center is now welcoming community donations of cloth masks.
Mercy officials are thanking community members who have fired up those sewing machines in the effort.
If you would like to help, check out the following website for step-by-step instructions on how to make these masks and the number to call when you are ready to donate:
ALSO: Rotary Community Corps Merced County has joined the effort to set up a collection and distribution system, and is organizing volunteers and seeking donations to make more masks.
The campaign is a partnership with Dignity Health, Merced County and the City of Merced.
Organizer Robert Garcia, who is the Community Service Chair for the MercedSunrise Rotary, said all masks will stay in the community where they were made.
“If someone makes masks in Merced, they will stay and help the people there,” Garcia said. “If they live in Atwater and make masks there, the masks will stay there unless they tell us otherwise.”
Garcia said there is a huge need throughout the area due to the coronavirusemergency. The handmade masks won’t replace the surgical masks and the N95 respirators, but will be used in place of them where they can.
The project started when Garcia was organizing a wellness check-in project at a senior living facility. The manager at the site said she was in dire need of masks and cleaning supplies, Garcia said. He started asking around and found out the need was a lot bigger, and the project grew.
Currently the drop-off site is in Merced, but Garcia expects to have more locations in the county soon.
In order to maintain social distancing, the mask drop-off will be a drive-thru at the Merced Senior Community Center, 755 W. 15th St. Merced. It is open from 7 a.m. to noon, Monday through Friday.
Volunteers and supplies are needed, and people can sign up at: rccmercedcounty.org.
The website has a video and tips on how to make masks from the University of Florida College of Medicine.
• SAVE THE DATE: Merced County will host a “Small Business Resources” webinar from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday, April 16. Details on how to access/register for the webinar will be included in future county updates. The webinar will cover resources currently available to small business owners and non-profit organizations amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
• ATTENTION LOCAL BUSINESSES: A new City of Merced website has been established as a new resource for a variety of assistance measures during the coronavirus crisis.
Visit online at: https://www.mercedbusiness–