Note: this story was published just before Humboldt County entered the Purple Tier indicating "widespread" coronavirus cases. – Ed.
Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – Humboldt County had been “luckier than most” with spread of COVID-19, Health Officer Dr. Teresa Frankovich has said, but luck has run out – the county’s case rate has more than tripled, contact tracing can’t keep up with it and movement into the state’s highest risk tier was imminent as of last week.
Holidays have been springboards of infection and things are expected to get worse with Thanksgiving’s social allure.
November marks a turning point in the county’s coronavirus experience. Daily case rates have vaulted, bringing the total number to 730 by the end of last week and new restrictions were effected as the county moved into the state’s second-highest, red tier risk ranking.
During a November 17 update to the Board of Supervisors, Frankovich said that the first two weeks of November saw double the number of confirmed COVID cases than the entire third week.
Many of the new cases are related to gatherings and traveling to and from other areas of the state, where infection rates are even higher.
Frankovich said that with more cases, come more hospitalizations, then deaths. But she ended the update on a positive note, saying that although moving into the state’s highest tier is likely, it’s not too late to control the county’s infection rate.
“Actually we’ve not seen a huge increase in our community transmission yet and if we do what we need to do we can probably stem this,” she said, adding that success will “hinge completely, largely, on the fact that we have to forgo the visiting gathering and traveling – we just do.”
But on Nov. 20 – a day that saw the confirmation of 19 new COVID-19 cases – Frankovich’s tone was less upbeat.
“I want to make it clear I am very concerned and the trend that we’re seeing is alarming and it is very likely to land us in the purple tier in short order,” she said in a media availability video.
Turning purple means places like restaurants, gyms and place of worship can’t be open for indoor use, retail businesses have to cut capacities to 25 percent and the county will fall under a 10 p.m. state-imposed curfew.
As coronavirus lingers, the weather and social trends are spurring ideal infection environments.
“We’ve been luckier than most for a very long time but I think we’re seeing the drivers of moving indoors in colder weather and the fact that we are seeing gathering and travel and those drivers are getting us in trouble,” Frankovich said in the video.
Cases are “scattering” beyond the grasp of contact tracing investigations and “that means cases will be unidentified in the community, increasing spread further,” she continued.
Also complicating investigations is reluctance to confess having done things that have been warned against for months.
“We know that when we reach out to positive cases, sometimes people have been doing things that they know we have not been advising and I think there’s some hesitation on people’s part to give the full details of what they’ve been doing,” Frankovich said. “I just want to emphasize that particularly as our case counts rise, we don’t have the time to wait three or four days or five days to be able to get a full picture of what exposures might be -- it means that there is spread in that interval and we can’t afford that right now.”
She warned against traditional Thanksgiving dinners. “There really is not a safe way to have a gathering around a table eating with masks off indoors — there isn’t, there just isn’t,” she said.
Nor is it safe if everyone’s been tested a day prior. “That’s great, you know you’re negative that day, it means nothing about what you are the next day,” said Frankovich. “And so it does not ensure the safety of those you’re gathering with.”
During the Board of Supervisors update, Frankovich said that “we could put the brakes on halt and even possibly get back (to a minimal risk tier) but it’s going to take a lot of joint effort across the community.”
But the pervasiveness of mask-wearing is in question. Supervisors Virginia Bass and Mike Wilson related their encounters with groups of young men who had surly reactions to their masking advice.
Asked during the video about the most important lessons the county’s learned, Frankovich said that “one is the effectiveness of facial coverings.”
She added, “It works, it is not a controversial issue at this point – from a scientific standpoint, people need to wear them.”
Communal failure to control COVID-19 will be evident in hospital overcrowding. “The endgame here is trying to protect our health care system capacity from an overwhelming surge of cases that really compromises care for everyone,” said Frankovich in a Nov. 17 video.
She won’t be the face and the voice of the county’s coronavirus response much longer. Frankovich announced her resignation last September and the county is poised to hire a new health officer.