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Local officials say Humboldt County is adequately prepared to crack the door a bit wider in our “soft opening” of local businesses after nearly two months of shelter-in-place orders and intense safety precautions triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At a special meeting this afternoon, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors accepted a report compiled by local health officials over the weekend.
The document — whose official name is “the Humboldt County Containment Elements report” — is an “attestation of readiness.” That is, it’s a document designed to prove to officials in Sacramento that Humboldt County is ready to move further into Stage 2 of Governor Newsom’s four-stage plan for reopening California.
It spells out, in some detail, the wide range of measures in place locally to manage the coronavirus outbreak — from testing and hospital capacity to prevention protocols, containment strategies and more. (You can download the 27-page report by clicking here.)
If the state accepts the report, it will give Humboldt County a degree of local control over the reopening process. A fairly wide range of local businesses will be cleared to reopen, but only after they submit detailed safety plans spelling out how they will protect employees and the public from contamination. The county today launched an online tool to guide businesses through submitting their reopening plans.
Businesses that may be eligible to reopen include agriculture (yes, that means licensed cannabis farms), retail stores, construction companies, child care facilities, office workspaces, manufacturing, hotels, dine-in restaurants and more. (See the full list of sectors on the county website.)
As Humboldt County Health Officer Dr. Teresa Frankovich explained during today’s meeting, the county itself has to meet certain criteria in order to be granted this leeway. One of those yardsticks is the prevalence of infection across the county, and our spike in confirmed cases over the last few days, including nine new cases since Friday, puts us close to the cutoff mark.
When the report was finalized on Wednesday, Humboldt County had seen a total of eight confirmed cases over the previous 14 days. “By population size we were allowed to have up to 13.5 cases,” Frankovich told the board. Yesterday’s tally of three more cases put us up to 11, just three shy of going over the limit.
[UPDATE: Later Wednesday afternoon, the county’s Joint Information Center announced that three more positive cases have been confirmed. It’s unclear how this will affect reopening plans.]
But Frankovich said that going above that line now wouldn’t necessarily require us to go back to full lockdown mode. The idea behind the readiness report is to demonstrate that the county has adequate resources to handle a surge in new cases.
“If we are able to open, should we do it more slowly?” Frankovich asked. “Those questions will be answered once we have approval in place.”
Another element that may put that state approval in jeopardy is our daily volume of testing. “We fall a bit lower than the state bar on what we’ve been doing on a daily basis,” Frankovich said. She attributed that in part to a low prevalence of local people displaying respiratory symptoms and other key indicators of COVID infection. She also said that the county’s new remote testing facility at Redwood Acres hasn’t been fully booked.
“We want to make sure that’s jam-packed full every day,” she said. “We clearly vastly exceed what’s required [for capacity].”
Meanwhile, the county health department has dramatically increased its workforce for handling containment and contact tracing, building from a baseline of just three people to a team of 30, including several nurses. The goal, Frankovich said, is a team of 59, but the current number exceed the state’s requirement.
The county also meets the state’s guidelines for hospital bed capacity, temporary housing for vulnerable populations (homeless folks in particular) and supplies of ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE).
“I think those pieces all together actually put us in good shape,” Frankovich said, though she also noted that reopening plans are subject to change. “If we see an increase of cases, we may need to go slower than we’d planned.”
Local hospitals, including St. Joseph, Mad River and Jerold Phelps, also submitted letters attesting to their readiness to handle a surge in cases.
Honsal said retail businesses will be first in line to be evaluated for reopening approval. “When we’re at the point where the health officer says we’re good to go for foot traffic, we’ll push out certifications for businesses that have applied [and that] we’ve certified,” he said.
Honsal agreed that the reopening process should be done slowly and carefully. “We’re basically wanting to make it in small bites at this time,” he said.
“I was actually amazed at how detailed that plan was,” Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass said during today’s meeting.
During the public comment period, one caller, who identified himself only as Ian, said he supports Frankovich’s words of caution. “Given that we’re two cases away from hitting the threshold, it’s not the time to press forward,” he said. “I do support staying the course, but not accelerating if the numbers don’t allow.”
Another call-in public commenter (Travis or Trevor, I couldn’t quite catch the name) said, “I’m afraid you may be losing touch with what the public is thinking.” He suggested that if officials had focused less on closing government offices and more on encouraging safety measures like social distancing, people wouldn’t be quite so irritated. (This was in reference to the defiant, safety-be-damned crowd that showed up for a rodeo in Shasta County over the weekend.)
“What it’s looking like right now is a power grab,” the caller said, and he asked to know what the “ultimate goal” of these precautionary measures is.
Frankovich graciously called that a fair question and said that, in the context of infectious viruses, we haven’t really been dealing with this one for very long. It takes time to develop either herd immunity or — even better — preventative treatment or a vaccine. “The goal until then,” she said, “is just to manage the pace of infections” so that health care resources don’t get overwhelmed.
The board voted unanimously to approve the attestation of readiness and send it to Sacramento, along with the letters from local hospitals. (Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson missed the meeting because he was participating in a meeting of the California Coastal Commission.)
While the county moves forward to loosen restrictions, Frankovich did offer some words of warning in light of the recent spike in new cases. They’re not limited to the Alder Bay assisted living facility, where two residents, one staff person and three personal contacts of the staffer have tested positive since Friday. Other cases continue to pop up.
“That really points out that this virus is here in our community,” Frankovich said.