Public health workers say the reopening of businesses in many California counties gave residents the idea it was safe to host parties, which has driven much of the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases.
According to the latest state data, hospitalizations due to COVID-19 increased 19% during the past week, from 3,103 hospital admissions on June 14 to 3,702 on June 21. This is the highest hospitalization numbers have been since April.
“Those that suggest we’re out of the woods, those that suggest this is going to somehow disappear, these numbers tell a different and very sobering story,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a Monday press conference.
Since releasing the state’s roadmap to re-opening this spring, Newsom has warned that case numbers and hospitalizations would increase as people left their homes. He says what we’re seeing now is still in line with that expected rise, and that hospitals have the capacity to address it. But it’s up to county health departments to keep an eye on disease trends and put in more restrictive measures when appropriate.
Many California counties are pressing on with plans to reopen retail and social venues, so long as patrons and staff take measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as wearing masks and staying six feet from others.
As counties discuss bringing back everything from zoos to tattoo parlors, many residents and public health officers are worried change is happening too fast, and without a clear idea of the impact.
“The problem is we’re not seeing the kind of flattening we would like,” said Dr. Lee Riley, an infectious disease expert at UC Berkeley.
Riley said hospitalization numbers are more telling than case numbers in terms of how the virus is behaving.
“The fact that there’s also an increase in the number of hospitalizations suggests that it’s not just because of the testing," he said. "That means that there are more transmissions occurring.”
It can take up to two weeks for COVID-19 symptoms to show up, so the current hospitalization numbers are likely tied to transmissions that occurred in early June.
Jenny Tan, a spokesperson for Yolo County, said officials started to see an uptick right around June 10 and 11. Public health workers who’ve been doing contact tracing learned that most of the spread happened among friends and family gathering in large groups in someone’s home or yard.
“As the warmer weather was coming, and it was just past Memorial Day, people were going out more,” Tan said. “People from different households were actually gathering … people from other counties were coming in to visit Yolo County residents.”
Currently, state guidelines do not permit gatherings that bring people from multiple households together.
Daniel Kim, a public health educator for San Joaquin County, said the gradual reopening of stores and restaurants has given people the impression that parties are allowed.
“The intent was always that households would be able to visit these locations and enjoy the business or enjoy a meal,” he said. “However, people had been thinking that once businesses start opening they’re free to get together more, and unfortunately that’s where we’re seeing the community transmissions happening.”
While bars and restaurants are required to have strict sanitization and physical distancing measures in place, at-home gatherings aren’t regulated that way. Friends and family who are comfortable around each other may be more likely to forgo face coverings or ignore the six foot rule.
“People kiss, they hug, they share food — it’s very much the typical way respiratory diseases spread,” said Dr. Bela Matyas, Solano County’s public health officer. “All of this effort is on masking, but the problem isn’t where the mask is being used, it’s where the mask isn’t being used, at family and friend gatherings.”
County officials say it’s best to avoid social gatherings entirely. If you do attend one, UC Berkeley's Riley has a few suggestions:
- wear a face covering
- keep at least six feet of distance between yourself and others
- wash your hands frequently
- outdoor gatherings are considered safer than indoor gatherings
“For now, people need to be aware,” Riley said. “People who are high-risk, they really should avoid these private gatherings. “
He said the state also needs to get more data on whether the disease has been spreading at bars and restaurants in counties where those businesses are open.
“If we find certain types of businesses are at risk of transmissions, we may need to go back to more restricted measures,” he said.
Already, some counties that originally chose to reopen their economies have rescinded those orders after seeing increases in cases.
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