County: Timing, scale of COVID-19 peak unknown

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – As Humboldt’s curve of COVID-19 cases begins its climb, the county’s Public Health Branch is uncertain about when it will peak and how many cases it could involve.  

During a March 30 virtual town hall meeting, county Public Health Officer Teresa Frankovich said that county hospitals can improvise up to 300 patient beds and more can be  established through tent set-ups and use of other medical and nursing facilities. 

And Sheriff Billy Honsal said that if it comes to it, the coroner’s morgue can hold 20 to 30 bodies and there’s capacity for 40 more through use of mortuaries. 

There was no indication on whether the county’s health care capacity can absorb a disease surge but countywide sheltering in place is said to be a lever of control.

Moderated by North Coast Journal Editor Thadeus Greenson, the forum included questions from members of local news media and emailed question from the audience. A panel of county officials was at supervisors chambers to answer them 

At the time of the forum, 21 cases had been confirmed in Humboldt County and Frankovich said investigations of recent infections demonstrate the emergence of community transmission. 

“Everyone must assume that COVID is circulating within their own city or town and act accordingly,” she continued. 

The day after the forum, the county’s number of cases jumped to 27. 

Information on what Humboldt residents can expect in the near future was vague. When Greenson asked Frankovich about when infection rates will peak and what the best and worst case scenarios are, she didn’t address the question and instead talked about the county’s shelter in place, quarantine and other containment strategies.

When the non-answer obligated Greenson to repeat the question, Frankovich said that “it’s really difficult to say right now” and “where we are now suggests that we have a ways out, I’m not expecting our surge next week or even the following week.” 

She said a countywide shelter in place order – which was updated with added restrictions on March 30 – will help prevent a sharp spike in cases in a short period of time. 

A lower peak over a longer period of time will prolong the presence of the virus but avoid a surge that overcomes health care system capacity, Frankovich continued. 

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Information on capacity has been lacking. Greenson said that “it’s been frustrating for local media to get capacity numbers from local hospitals” and asked Frankovich what they are. 

She said that “on a normal day” the county’s hospitals have about 172 patient beds available but with “re-arranging, expanding and being creative,” up to 300 beds can be available.  

“That’s a huge bump in our capacity by just looking at what we have within the walls,” she continued. 

Additional beds can be established through setting up tents and making use of other health care facilities, said Frankovich. 

There were several questions about testing and Frankovich said that the county is “well-positioned for what we need to do now” but will try to go beyond that, to “surveillance testing.” 

Numbers of local tests are increasing and Frankovich said that per capita, the county’s testing rate is above both the state’s and the nation’s. 

Asked about the community’s concerns, Board of Supervisors Chair Estelle Fennell said they include uncertainty about rebounding from economic impacts but “people are in it for the long haul, they are going to stay in place and they are going to do what they’ve got to do.”

The forum began with a phoned-in update from Senator Mike McGuire, who gave a concise and direct report on the statewide situation. 

“The state believes that at a minimum, we’re going to be under a shelter at home order through May 1,” he said. “The bottom line is this and it’s unfortunate, but the virus is continuing to spread and hospitalizations are continuing to increase across the state.” 

McGuire added that at this point, cases and hospitalizations are increasing significantly but most of them are in the greater Bay Area and Los Angeles region.

McGuire said the state’s peak of cases is two to four weeks ahead but it’s a “moving estimate because testing is still a challenge.” 

The state legislature has passed a $1.1 billion spending bill to “expand hospital capacity in every corner of this state,” he continued. 

For small businesses that retain or furlough employees for four months, the federal Small Business Administration will provide loans that become 90 percent grants if employees are kept on payroll after the four-month period.  

New restrictions

The local shelter in place order applies to the entire county, including cities. Its recently-added restrictions include closing “communal equipment” areas of parks and trails that don’t allow hikers to pass while maintaining a six-foot distance. 

Businesses that “enhance quality of life” such as video rental and sporting goods stores were formerly allowed to remain open but are now defined as being non-essential. Craft stores are allowed to remain open because they sell products that allow people to work from home.  

Food-related restrictions include prohibition of bulk foods, salad and hot food bars and other self-service offerings.

The amended order also seeks to reduce tourism by prohibiting rental of hotel rooms, campgrounds and short-term vacation rentals to out-of-county visitors. People who are in the county to do essential work are exempted. 

The order formerly set an April 9 date for consideration of renewal. The new order now states that sheltering in place will continue until the health officer deems it unnecessary. 







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