A rise in COVID-19 cases is causing some Northern California counties to move backward in the state’s tier system for reopening.
Local health officials say they’ve been focused on lowering case rates in accordance with the state’s so-called Blueprint for a Safer Economy, which allows for counties to reopen or expand certain business sectors if they can reduce their rates below a certain threshold.
But when the state announced the weekly tier assignments Wednesday, only Colusa County was approved to move forward through the system — from the red (substantial) tier to the lower orange (moderate tier).
California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said this is the first week they’ve seen only one county move forward — signaling a potential backslide for others.
“Which I think is an important reminder that the baseline transmission rates of COVID across our state are indeed going up, that it’s not just in one or two counties but it’s widespread across the state,” Ghaly said.
Two counties have to go back a step, with Shasta County moving to purple (widespread) and Plumas retreating to orange (moderate).
In early October, after Sacramento County moved to the red tier, officials launched a push to “turn Sacramento orange by Halloween.” But Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye says an outbreak at a long-term care facility, along with a general uptick in community spread, kept Sacramento’s case rates above that threshold.
“We are still in the red … this week, for the case rate we actually met the criteria for the purple tier,” she said. “If we hit the threshold for two weeks in a row, then we are at risk of reverting back to the purple tier.”
She said gatherings are the main factor behind the rise.
“It’s due to people getting together on the weekend, either at home or at restaurants and bars,” she said. “We’re still getting the message out, please as much as possible stay away from gatherings.”
The state recommends that if you have a gathering, keep it to less than two hours, invite no more than three households and do it outside.
Yolo County Health Officer Dr. Aimee Sisson says her county is currently in the red tier, but is also currently at risk of moving to the purple tier due to their case rate.
Outbreaks at skilled nursing facilities in the area have contributed to the problem, Sisson said.
“The biggest challenge with keeping disease outside out of our long-term care facilities is just that COVID-19 can be spread by people that have no symptoms,” she said. “Typically what happens is an asymptomatic staff person has acquired COVID-19 as part of their daily life, and they come into the facility to work without symptoms, and before we know it they’ve spread disease to the residents.”
She says she and other public health leaders across the state are also worried about peoples’ social habits changing in the winter.
“Cooler weather is one thing that’s going to drive people indoors, as well as the holidays and having more gatherings,” she said. “We are shifting to harm reduction messaging, acknowledging we need to meet people where they’re at.”
Nevada County is currently in the orange (moderate) tier, but recently announced to the public that if their data puts them in the red (substantial) tier for the next two weeks, they’ll slide backwards. The county saw 23 new cases on Monday.
“Most of our recent COVID-19 cases are from people letting their guard down; participating in social gatherings without masking or distancing, traveling out of the area where transmission rates are higher, and going into work while carrying COVID-19 and transmitting it throughout the workplace,” wrote Nevada County Interim Public Health Officer Dr. Richard Johnson in a press release.
Very few of the cases have been traced to people eating at restaurants or otherwise supporting local businesses, said Nevada County spokesperson Taylor Wolfe. Transmission out in public places can be minimized by wearing a face covering and staying six feet away from others.
“The benefit of messaging this early to the community is to get people to acknowledge we’re seeing a serious increase,” she said, referring to cases from social gatherings and workplaces. “It’s time to get back to the basics.”
Still, counties are finding ways to move forward and reopen their economies. On Aug. 31, there were 38 counties in the most restrictive purple tier (widespread) and just two in the least restrictive yellow tier (minimal). Now there are only 10 counties in purple and there are nine counties in yellow — the rest are in either red (substantial) or orange (moderate).
“Our slow and stringent approach has allowed many counties to move forward in our tier assignments, and allow additional business sectors to begin operating,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly at the Wednesday announcement.”
The uptick in cases, combined with potential hospitalizations related to flu season, means California hospitals will again have to be vigilant about maintaining capacity, staffing and protective equipment in the event of a winter surge.
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