Today, Dr. Ian Hoffman, Humboldt County health officer, took questions from reporters about the last week’s news from the pandemic — vaccine distribution, new variants — plus some long-term concerns such as school sports and reopening.
Video above, rough transcript below.
From the North Coast Journal: On Nov. 17, your predecessor sent a letter to local school
districts “strongly recommending” they move to distance learning for a 14-day period following
the Thanksgiving holiday to monitor local virus activity following the holiday.
Case counts and test positivity rates have steadily risen since and you indicated last
week that we have yet to see the full impacts of holiday travel.
Given all that, what’s your current advice to school districts considering a return to
in-person instruction in the coming weeks and how might teacher vaccination status impact
Yeah the recommendation after the holiday travel around Thanksgiving and Christmas was really for a limited time frame to see what were the potential implications in the coming weeks for spread as kids went outside of the area potentially to visit family or friends. But outside of of that time frame, I’ve always strongly encouraged schools to open for in-person using the precautions that are in place; working with us to to try to open up the schools because it’s the really the best place for kids to be for a learning environment.
From the North Coast Journal: Humboldt County currently has far more people eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine than supply allows. How are you and public health prioritizing who of those eligible is first served, understanding there are the competing interests of vaccinating those at greatest risk of exposure (teachers and first responders) versus those at greatest risk of critical disease outcomes (those 75 and older) and prioritizing one inherently pushes the other further back in the queue?
It’s a tough situation. We have to balance a lot of priorities and there’s really it’s a zero-sum situation at this point because when you give a vaccine to one person, you’re taking it away from another person. Very difficult decisions; were weighing the risk of disease with societal function and getting us back to a normal existence. We’re following the state guidance though and the phases in tiers and we’re moving through it and going forward as quickly as the vaccine supply allows.
From the North Coast Journal: There has been a lot of reporting nationally about new virus strains circulating that are potentially more contagious. What do you know about the prevalence of new strains locally and regionally, and does that change your advice to local residents, businesses and organizations regarding best practices to prevent disease spread?
I’ll answer the second part first. There should be no change in our practices because the things that we do to prevent the new strains are the exact same things we do to prevent the old strains. So that would be: distancing, masking, avoiding gathering, washing hands. As far as the virus strains locally, we’ve only had the report of the one strain that is becoming more prevalent in California that we don’t really know anything about. It’s still not strong evidence that it’s more contagious or more deadly or anything else. we just know that it’s becoming more prevalent and that is the only one that’s been found locally. We will continue to update if we find out more about new strains in Humboldt County.
From the North Coast Journal: Can you please provide an update on the testing laboratory partnership with United Indian Health Services and other entities? Is the lab up and running and, if so, how many samples is it processing a week? If it is not yet operational, why not?
It is operational. It’s been operational for a little while now for internal use. We’ve been directing testing there, they’ve been doing their own testing. They’re up to nearly a thousand samples a week. They’re working on a public-facing interface that will allow for people to register and so that should be coming. I think the progress is going well and we’re excited to have that partnership.
From the Redheaded Blackbelt: Now that local educators are beginning to receive the vaccine, how do you anticipate that affecting the level of risk for families in local schools which may be doing in person teaching?
We’re really excited to get the teachers their vaccines. I think it’s a really important aspect in preserving that societal functioning. I was talking about from a risk standpoint, we have not seen schools as a high-risk for contagious spread. We have not seen any outbreaks in a school. We have had cases in a school that lead to quarantines of the folks, but haven’t seen any spread yet. So I think it’ll be helpful for a lot of different reasons and will build confidence in opening schools and getting kids back in schools.
From the Redheaded Blackbelt: Have there been any confirmed cases of any variants of COVID-19 in Humboldt County recently? Do we know if they are related to the holiday surge?
I believe I already answered that.
From the Redheaded Blackbelt: Have we learned anything new in regard to how the new variants of COVID-19 are able to be more virulent or more highly transmissible from person to person?
I don’t have any new updates on that.
From the Senior News: Everyone is aware of the supply and distribution problems for vaccine, but do you have any new guidance for seniors, especially, who are getting the run-around in finding and receiving their shots?
We created an interest form on Humboldt Health Alert that can be filled out to give your information that you want to receive the vaccine.
We are using that information to invite people who don’t have access through their primary care providers and create clinics for them.
That can be used by anyone, but certainly if you’re in an age group that is open right now and you haven’t been invited by your provider, go on the website and fill that out.
If you cannot fill it out yourself, if you don’t have a family member or a friend or a neighbor who could fill it out for you, you can always call the Joint Information Center at 441-5000 and they can help you fill that out over the phone.
Lastly I’d say while we’re waiting for the supply to increase so we can get more vaccines out there, we all need to continue the masking, the distancing, the avoiding gatherings and hand washing that are going to reduce the spread of this disease.
From the Senior News: Do you have any further guidance for people who have received their first vaccinations about whether the second shots will be available on time? And would you comment on whether people should accept a different vaccine for the second shot?
The CDC doesn’t recommend that. I agree. I would not recommend a different shot for the second one. You should get the same that you got for the first one. There is flexibility in the timing of the second dose of the vaccine and I think as we are recognizing some of the struggles of rolling this out and a mass vaccination event across our whole country, we need to be a little flexible in that. So I think that there is flexibility. The current guidelines say that you could get it up to 42 days after the first dose which is longer than the recommended. And just being open to that if appointments are not available when it’s your time to get your second dose, it’s okay we’ll definitely try hard to get everyone their second dose in a good window.
From the Associated Press: The California Department of Public Health’s four-week projections for regional ICU capacity shows the Northern California region falling from the highest, 47.9% now, to the lowest, 18.9%, in four weeks. Are you expecting a sudden drop in regional ICU capacity in a month, or do you think the state’s prediction is wrong? Have state officials offered an explanation? Why would the capacity decline so steeply in four weeks?
Yep we continue to monitor the situation. We definitely are watching the hospitals closely. The projections are something that are hard to know exactly where they’re going to go in the coming weeks. I don’t think we have any indication that our ICUs are going to be full in the coming week or two, but I do think there is a concern that there have been more hospitalizations for COVID-19 in the past really week, than than we’ve had at any point in the pandemic. We put some information out about that yesterday in our media release with a graph showing that. So we’re going to continue to monitor that. I’ve been in contact with the state about that trend here locally and if we see anything else that needs to be done locally we’ll definitely start to have that discussion.
From the Redwood News: Has there been any change in the supply chain of Covid-19 vaccines? Is the County receiving more doses per week?
Is there any indication the County will begin receiving more vaccines from the State? There’s been no change. It’s been pretty a steady supply of one to two thousand first doses with the matching second doses after the time period. So now we’re pretty much at about three to four thousand doses each week total. We don’t see any decline in that. There could be a small increase with some of the efforts that are being done at the federal level. So we’re anticipating that could be the case and we continue to plan for each week when we get our allocation numbers we look at those and we start to plan out the clinics for the following week.
From the Redwood News: It was mentioned yesterday that educators have begun receiving invitations for vaccination appointments. Can you give the community a better idea of the timeline for vaccinating educators? When do you think a majority of educators will be vaccinated and it’s safer for kids to return to the classroom?
Yeah we announced yesterday that we began the process of inviting educators starting with those who are doing in-person education first and when there’s enough vaccine we’ll open that up to all educators and this also includes support staff in the schools that are having in-person education. We feel that by mid-February we’ll be able to at least get an invitation out to everyone in the education sector for K-12 and we’re currently working with other sectors in education, child care to start to plan for when we can start to send invitations for them. I think in terms of safety and returning to classrooms, I think that vaccine is one aspect of that, but we have never used that as the reason to reopen schools. We do feel there are protocols and ways that we can reopen the school safely currently, but I think it will help everyone feel safer for sure.
From the Redwood News: Can you talk about the recent rise in hospitalizations and what that might mean for our case count, or death rate moving forward?
Should the community be concerned about this recent uptick, even though new case numbers have been on the smaller side over the last couple of days? I think that it is a concern as I mentioned and I don’t know which way this is gonna go. We’re gonna continue to watch it. The case count has remained fairly steady so we could be seeing what happened after the Christmas holiday and around the first few weeks in January playing out in terms of more hospitalizations, but we’ll continue to update as we know more.
From the North Coast News: Vaccine side effects – It’s normal to have certain reactions after a vaccination. But have there been any abnormal vaccine reactions locally in Humboldt County?
We’ve certainly had plenty of mild to moderate reactions. I do not know of any severe anaphylactic reactions in Humboldt County.
From the North Coast News: If the numbers they’re reporting vaccinating are first and second doses combined, right? How many people have been vaccinated fully — i.e. first and second doses?
We’re working on trying to gather that information. It’s been tough because we don’t vaccinate everyone in Humboldt County through public health. We have a lot of different clinics and hospitals that are doing vaccination clinics. We’re working with them now to try to get better reporting from them on their numbers. And also working with the care system, the state-based system, to see where the data lags are and why those numbers are not seeming to match with what we feel like we’ve been given out here locally.
From the North Coast News: Since the vaccination doesn’t protect against transmission, only lessens symptoms, how will we accurately count cases in the coming months if fewer people are getting tested because they’re not as sick?
It’s a great question. We absolutely want people to keep getting tested even if you’ve been vaccinated. If you’re not feeling well, even for monitoring potential transmission, we know that statewide and locally the testing has dramatically dropped since the vaccination effort began. And I think we want to definitely get the message out that testing is still a hugely important part of controlling the spread of this disease.
From the Times-Standard: Can Dr. Hoffman comment on the possible return of youth sports in Humboldt County based on the current CDPH tier level, as California HHS Secretary Mark Ghaly approved during his COVID-19 update conference on Jan. 26. When would calendars for the Humboldt-Del Norte prep league be looked at and/or approved by county health officials? Has there been any communication or coordination between the Humboldt-Del Norte prep league and the county related to the return of youth sports? Are there any impediments outside the current health guidelines for the approval of youth sports calendars?
We have been in contact with the Humboldt-Del Norte prep league. We’ve met with them recently to go over the guidelines and there are plans in place to start those in the coming weeks. Also discussions of moving forward if we go into other tiers how to get those youth leagues up and running safely. I’m sure that they will be putting out a calendar shortly once they finish reviewing all of the guidance and the discussions that we’ve been having with them. The guidance can be found on the state’s website as well at covid19.ca.gov and so that’s the guidance that we’ve been working off of with the Humboldt-Del Norte prep league.
From the Times-Standard: Can you provide a ballpark estimate of when during the upcoming year restaurants, retail establishments, and other businesses and nonprofits can expect to resume normal operations? Will that normal still require social distancing and masking?
Yeah such a good question we get time and time again. I definitely hope that we can get back to some form of normalcy when we have enough vaccine to penetrate enough of the population. If we look at some timelines that could be as soon as the end of the summer beginning of the fall that’ll all depend on the supply of the vaccine and how much they can get us each week to get towards that goal. I do think that we will probably still be in some stage of masking and distancing well into the rest of this year. A hopeful estimate could be that next winter wouldn’t look like that, but most public health officials do feel that it’s likely that COVID will still be around next winter and that we’ll need to follow some sort of guidance. So we’ll see mostly it’ll depend on the amount of disease that’s circulating at that time based on the vaccine and the other precautions that we use like distancing, masking and avoiding gatherings and hand washing.
From the Times-Standard: What percentage of vaccines received by the county have already been used?
The county has used all of the vaccine that we have. So we’re waiting for our new shipments each week. There are other vaccines in the county and while we don’t have completely accurate numbers on those because they’re not given by us, I am in communication with all of those clinics that are giving them and they are they’re using up what we give them each week and asking for even more than they got the week before or not able to give it to them because of the limited supply.