​Top health official: COVID ‘the worst that it’s been’

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – Coronavirus continues to surge throughout Humboldt County, maxing out ICU capacity, causing business closures and making younger people sicker.

​The status of Humboldt’s piece of the pandemic was updated at the August 24 Board of Supervisors meeting. The weeks leading up to the meeting saw successive record-breaking case counts and hospitalizations.

​The driver of the disease boom is “the more contagious and faster spreading Delta variant that has yet to show signs of decreasing,” Dr. Ian Hoffman, the county’s health officer, told supervisors.  

​Hospitalizations lag case counts and they continue to rise. “Hospitals are feeling severe impacts and our local health care workers are under severe distress and duress right now,” Hoffman said.

​With over half of the county’s ICU capacity absorbed by COVID-19 patients, there’s been “cancellation of many needed procedures that were deemed not emergencies but still very needed by members of our community,” said Hoffman.

Due to the lack of local ICU care capacity, many critically ill residents have been sent to out-of-area hospitals, he continued.

​There is physical hospital space but staffing is inadequate and Hoffman reported that ICU capacity has been at or near 100 percent for the last two weeks.

​Efforts to increase hospital staffing have been unsuccessful, as the demand for health care workers is acute throughout the state and the nation.  

​But during an Aug. 26 virtual news conference, county health officials said additional health care staffing is in the process of being secured as the local situation grows alarmingly intense.

​“We know where we’re at right now is the worst that it’s been,” said Public Health Director Sofia Pereira.

People in their 30s and 40s and younger are getting seriously ill and hospitalized, a trend associated with the rise of the Delta variant. Hoffman said unvaccinated people make up the majority of hospitalizations and account for all of those in the younger age groups.

​But the timespan of vaccine protection is more limited than originally believed. Hoffman urged residents who have medical conditions to get booster vaccine doses.

​The recommendation is for booster doses eight months after vaccination. The U.S. is preparing to launch a definitive booster dose program in mid-September but the president has been briefed on the need for third shots of mRNA vaccines five months after second shots.  

Delta spread accelerated in California last spring, coinciding with the statewide reopening on June 15. As COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, Delta took off.

Now that re-opening is established, reinstating restrictions appears to be an impractical option. A county mask-wearing mandate went into effect on Aug. 7 but if businesses and organizations want additional protection, they have to mandate it themselves.

During last week’s supervisors meeting, Hoffman said businesses are closing anyway, due to employees being sick or in quarantine.  

“We hear, every day, lots of stories of businesses not able to maintain being open because of staffing issues,” he said. “It’s not that public health is shutting them down, they don’t have enough staff to remain open.”

​Hoffman also worries for “some of the schools that have lower vaccination rates and higher (case) numbers in their communities” and said they “might be facing the same thing very soon.”

​When vaccines were first released, a can-do attitude was shared by health officials on all levels. But the surprisingly powerful contagiousness of the Delta variant prompts uncertainty about the pandemic’s future.

“COVID-19 has proven to be a formidable opponent and it is safe to say everyone is exhausted,” Hoffman told supervisors.

From Aug. 21 to Aug. 26, 428 new COVID-19 cases were confirmed by the county.

More than 100 additional case confirmations were estimated on Aug. 27, with their database logging delayed “due to further reductions in state-assigned staff and reassignment of local staff to contact tracing and vaccination efforts,” according to a county press release.

​Last week’s case counts, hospitalizations and deaths continue a trend of unprecedented disease escalation.

​There were 10 COVID-19 deaths last week, including residents in their 20s and 30s, and a fully-vaccinated resident in their 70s. Six of the deaths were reported on Aug. 27, the county’s highest-ever daily toll.

​There were 15 hospitalizations, across a range of age groups.

​As the grim month of August neared its end, 52 percent of the county’s population was fully-vaccinated.




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