​Humboldt readies for change in COVID-19 fight

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – Humboldt County’s public health officer has said that the county will soon have to re-focus its coronavirus work from investigating cases to responding to a surge of them.

Teresa Frankovich, Humboldt’s health officer, joined her counterparts from Trinity and Del Norte counties in an April 1 telephone town hall forum convened by Senator Mike McGuire.

Saying that “the last two weeks have been some of the most surreal and challenging of our lifetimes,” McGuire announced that the peak of COVID-19 cases in the state is “not expected to hit, at a minimum, of four weeks from now.”

Dr. Teresa Frankovich

Frankovich said almost 750 county residents have been tested for the disease and 28 people have tested positive for it. The positives mostly involve travel-related infections or contact with them but three of them have no apparent links to other known cases.

Investigating cases is labor-intensive and in the near future, there won’t be much time for doing it.

“There is enormous effort going into preparing for the time when there is a surge in cases requiring hospitalization,” Frankovich said. Over the coming month or so, we expect we will see additional community transmission cases being identified – at some point, we will shift resources from case investigations into other areas such as our surge response.”

For now, investigating cases is “a critical piece of what we can do to slow this virus,” she continued.  
Frankovich said that so far, testing has focused on those who at risk due to occupation, health condition or being in care facilities.

The forum included e-mailed questions from an audience of over 800 listeners. One of them asked when Humboldt County testing will be expansive enough to screen asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers.

The county’s public health lab is “certainly too small” to do testing on that scale, said Frankovich, adding that she wants to be able to test mildly ill residents. But to do testing on a large scale, outside resources are necessary.

“We have been in conversations with the state about that but I don’t have anything concrete at this time,” Frankovich said.

McGuire said testing has been focused in places with large scale outbreaks like New York. “We’re continuing to ramp up in California but obviously this has been a challenge from the very beginning,” he continued.

Asked why Humboldt County hasn’t shut down its main airport, Frankovich said that doing it is beyond the scope of local authority.

Only essential travel is advised, she continued, and the county has “done what is within our power to do,” by posting signage on the need for 14 day quarantines upon return and other recommendations.

Frankovich agreed with the premise of the question and said that “travel is a big risk area.

A Eureka resident asked if it would be in violation of the county’s shelter in place order to travel to Arizona in an RV.

Frankovich said it would be a violation because it would be non-essential travel and there would inevitably be some degree of social contact in other communities.

Sen. Mike McGuire

Answering another question, she said expansion of hospital intensive care units and ventilators is being worked on. Patient beds can be added both within and outside of hospitals, she continued, and there is a disaster assistance volunteer list that can be drawn from to bring in more patient care workers.

“We’re reaching out to our state resources as well, to say what we believe we are going to need,” Frankovich said.

The forum also included Art Reingold, the University of California School of Public Health’s infectious disease division head.

McGuire relayed the night’s most frequently-asked question. “We are getting inundated with questions about masks,” he said. “Plain and simple – ‘Shouldn’t we all wear masks’ – that’s been the gist of many of the questions coming in tonight, can you set it straight, can they really help?”

“This has been evolving,” Reingold responded, noting that until recently masks were primarily recommended for health care providers or for when ill people had to be near others.

I think, increasingly, the evidence is that it might add some protection for people but we don’t want them to deplete the supply of surgical masks available to front line public health workers,” he said. “But if you’re going to be around other people out in public, wearing a mask certainly won’t hurt you and could potentially provide some benefit.”

McGuire reported that California’s COVID-19 incidence is approaching 9,000 cases and the state legislature has approved a $1.1 billion spending bill to expand hospital capacity.

He said the state has 74,000 hospital beds and another 50,000 beds will be needed to meet coronavirus surge capacity. The state has about 400 hospitals and they’ll be asked to expand capacity by 30,000 beds. The state will develop facilities to provide another 20,000 beds.

McGuire concluded the forum by saying, “I’m going to be honest about this, we have some challenging days ahead but I know, as a state and as a region here on the North Coast, we are gonna rise to this moment.”  


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