Today, as he does every week or so, Dr. Josh Ennis, Humboldt County’s deputy health officer took questions from local reporters. Today’s topics: Preparing for flu season, what this year’s Halloween might look like and why young people seem to contract COVID more often.

Video above; rough transcript below.


The North Coast News asks, “The 20 to 29-year-old age range continues to have the highest rate of cases in the county. What are some of the factors that contribute to the high number of cases in this age range?”

What I’d say is that there are two bigger reasons. Certainly there are many others beyond that, but the two biggest reasons really are they’re filling many of the positions out there in the labor pool that have more exposure to the general public. You know, think a fast food industry, think you know service industries such as hotel, lodging, restaurant work, servers, and so they’re just interfacing with the general public more.

And then secondly, and this is not a case for everyone in this age range, but younger people are tending to engage in behaviors that assume more risk and oftentimes that looks like bringing more people together who are traditionally in separate households and they’re mixing more and so it just represents more opportunity for illness to spread in that scenario.

And so the young people certainly are participating in that more and I don’t want to “other” this age group but this is one of the two items that I would say is driving higher case rates in this age range. They are certainly at lower risk of severe disease and so to some degree it is understandable, but again it’s a product of where they work as well as them being at lower risk of disease and engaging in behaviors that assume more risk. 

The North Coast News asks, “The CDPH recently announced new guidelines under which Humboldt County residents can gather with up to three households. Do you think this new allowance will help mitigate some of the risk coming into the holiday season, or could it perhaps open a new can of worms with larger gatherings?”

So I think this is an acknowledgement that no one can live in a full lockdown forever. I think everyone is becoming fatigued and I don’t blame anyone for that. This is extremely difficult to keep up.

So these guidelines are really trying to give those who would like to bring people together a framework to try and do it as safely as possible. Compared to staying only within your household, this does increase risk, I’ve already spoken to that with the prior question, but it’s trying to lay the foundation in a way that allows people to come together, do it in a way that if there is illness within that group, that it slows down the spread. When you start, for example, mixing which three households you bring together, it kind of builds and builds and builds and if you get a case, all of a sudden it’s it’s gone far beyond just the three households.

And so the idea here is yes, it will assume somewhat more risk, but let’s do it in a way that’s not going to cause cases to explode. So in a way when this question asks if it will help mitigate some of the risk, yes if you’re going to bring people together it will mitigate that risk, but make no mistake about it, it does increase risk compared to staying within exclusively your own household. 

The Times-Standard asks, “Has the county seen any increase or decrease in demand for flu shots amid the COVID-19 pandemic? Are there any concerns about shortages?”

At the county level we haven’t noticed any difference at this point it is very early in the flu season still. Nationally there have been no delays in distribution and planning around flu vaccination is something we’ve been actively looking at for the past couple months and we’ll be sure to communicate if there are any concerns about vaccination efforts this year. 

The Times-Standard asks, “What modeling has the county done of the overlap between flu season and the pandemic? What are best-case and worst-case scenarios for case counts, deaths and hospitalization? For comparison, can you provide data from the past three flu seasons for hospitalizations and deaths in the county?”

This is a very good question. We’ve been talking about this for at least three or four months. What is it going to look like come this respiratory season when COVID-19 could be circulating on top of the regular flu season. So before I answer this question I just want to put out there that no one knows what this flu season is going to look like, it varies year to year, the last couple years have not been particularly severe flu seasons, and to put this in context for most people listening, maybe they could compare you know flu seasons with 2009 when we saw H1N1 which was a more severe form of flu.

So that being said, when you try to compare hospitalizations and deaths from the flu to something such as COVID-19, you know your the challenge here is that each year’s circulating flu virus varies year to year in terms of how sick it makes people. And so just as an anchor point, you know, I want people to maybe think about that 2009 year when there was H1N1 and so that’s kind of a more firm anchor point that we can compare to. If you look at hospitalizations and deaths, there are a lot of assumptions here that go into this, but on the whole the fatality rate is probably on the order of at least five times greater, okay, and we know that in normal flu years in our county that hospitals can be operating near their upper limits of normal operations, okay, they’re not to a point where they’re bursting at the seams during the normal flu years, but they’re operating at the upper end.

You know they they have built to meet demand right, so if you put COVID-19 on top of it, which we know in the worst of flu years in our recent memory, um COVID-19 compares to be at least five times worse, there’s certainly a lot of concern that it could overwhelm our capability to take care of our residents locally. And so that is something that we have a lot of concern about.

For comparison I have some data on deaths for the past couple years. For deaths attributable to flu for 2018 and 2019 we recorded two deaths in each of those years. Now you can make the argument that maybe the the the testing port isn’t as widespread and so we can look for deaths due to other respiratory illnesses, pneumonia and whatnot, just to make sure we’re casting a large enough net, and so if you look at all those over the past two years, in each of those years it was 23 deaths. For a comparison we’ve been tracking those deaths this year just to see if there’s a disproportionate amount due to COVID-19 and at this point we are on pace to exceed that number from prior years.

And at this point, you know, we have eight deaths attributable to to COVID-19 and so given the fact that we’ve only recorded 500-plus confirmed cases throughout the county I think it’s very clear to us that COVID-19 is a far more deadly illness than flu in most typical years and even in some of the most severe years. And again, putting this in context, if you read about the Spanish flu, a lot has changed in the past hundred years, but this is something that uh COVID-19 is an illness that is on par with Spanish flu, potentially even worse. So this is a maybe once in a century type pandemic. 

The Times-Standard asks, “With Halloween coming up and at least one city council discussing plans this week, what guidance is the county providing for holiday celebrations? What activities are banned and what activities are discouraged?”

So we know that the state is actively working on guidance for Halloween, which is the most pressing holiday coming up. Beyond that there’s some very big holidays that traditionally bring a lot of people together and so given that the Halloween guidance isn’t out yet but we are anticipating it any day now, we will be reviewing that and releasing what the state’s guidance is on that issue in the very near future, so stay tuned.