More than 14 months after our first confirmed case of COVID-19, Humboldt County has been infiltrated by a more dangerous and infectious variant of the novel coronavirus known as B117, and in his latest update to the Board of Supervisors, Humboldt County Health Officer Dr. Ian Hoffman said that while case rates remain well below their peak locally, the number of hospitalizations in late April “rival the worst weeks of the pandemic for Humboldt County — with those who are younger and healthier getting sicker.”
This menacing variant, first identified in the United Kingdom, rapidly became the dominant strain in the U.S., according to the CDC. Speaking via Zoom, Hoffman said B117 is about 50 percent more contagious than previous strains, and it hits harder.
“We know that it’s causing more severe disease in younger and healthier people, with our current hospitalizations and ICU admissions happening [among a] much younger demographic than in the past,” he said. That trend includes the first hospitalization of a local child.
The recent “superspreader event” tied to Eureka the Pentecostal Church is the source of about 60 recent infections — with another 60 or so cases connected indirectly — but that still doesn’t fully account for the dramatic rise in cases over the past two weeks.
“And so we know that B117 is everywhere in Humboldt County and very likely the most dominant strain now locally,” Hoffman said. “And it will be the driver of infections in the coming weeks and months until another, potentially more infectious strain comes along to replace it.”
During this latest outbreak, Humboldt County’s rate of infection rocketed from just two per 100,000 people to 13 per 100,000, and the test positivity rate tripled, from two percent to six percent, according to Hoffman. (On Monday that latter number dipped slightly to 5.3 percent.)
Need another indication that B117 is not to be messed with? “We’ve had to transfer more patients out of Humboldt in the previous two weeks — due to their [symptom] severity or a lack of resources to care for them in our county — than any other time during the pandemic,” Hoffman said.
Is there any good news, you ask? Well, thankfully, the same precautions we’ve been hearing about ad nauseam — hand-washing, social distancing, face coverings and, not least of all, vaccinations — still work against the nefarious B117. Trouble is, local demand for the vaccines has been evaporating. Meanwhile, Huffman said, “We have seen a decrease in willingness to get tested by many in this surge, and it’s hurting our county.”
High rates of testing at the height of the local pandemic allowed public health workers to track and isolate new outbreaks, then extinguish them with quarantine protections before they spread too far. Lately, only those with the most severe symptoms have been bothering to get tested, so the virus has been spreading via people with mild or no symptoms, according to Hoffman. He urged people to people to be proactive.
“I strongly encourage all who feel they were exposed [or who] have even the mildest symptoms, please get tested,” he said. “Do it for your family, for your co-workers, for your community. There are too many folks in the hospital currently who could have avoided hospitalization … .”
Close to 40 percent of county residents age 16 and up have now been fully vaccinated, Hoffman said, but that still leaves a majority either unprotected or not fully protected, despite ample supplies to inoculate everyone who wants their jab(s). Hoffman encouraged anyone with questions about the vaccines’ safety and efficacy, along with those who need help making an appointment, to call the county’s Joint Information Center at 707-441-5000.
A reminder: You’re not considered fully vaccinated until two weeks after your single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or your second dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. Hoffman, as he has done before, highlighted the liberation that comes with being fully vaccinated — “things like feeling free to visit your fully vaccinated friends indoors and outdoors without a mask, without distancing and without worry that you might get severely ill from COVID-19,” he said.
You can also visit one household of low-risk folks who are still unvaccinated without worrying about exposing them to the virus, allowing you to “high-five, hug, sing together [and] break bread together,” he added.
With the FDA preparing to authorize the Pfizer vaccine for the 12-15 age group, Hoffman encouraged parents to get their kids vaccinated as soon as it becomes available to them.
“We’re still hopeful that Humboldt is headed to a great summer full of COVID-safe events that will be done with precautions in place to protect those who are vulnerable — precautions like masking, distancing, reduced capacity, testing and vaccination,” Hoffman said. He and his staff and hopeful that current surge will plateau and maybe start to decline in the coming weeks.
In the Q-&-A that followed Hoffman’s presentation, First District Supervisor Rex Bohn brought up local vaccine hesitancy, saying he gets 20 emails per day with supposed reasons not to get a shot.
“One [email] said it will start to eat my insides out in three to four years,” Bohn said. “There’s so much misinformation out there.”
He also suggested that local residents would not tolerate a return to a more restrictive tier in the state’s color-coded Blueprint for a Safer Economy system. (Humboldt is currently in the orange tier.)
“I personally say if we go back a tier you’re going to have a rebellion like you’ve never seen,” Bohn warned.
Hoffman said that while misinformation is certainly a problem, he thinks other factors — such as financial and logistical barriers or a reluctance to visit mass vaccination clinics — are playing a larger role. But for the record he also explained, “The vaccine is safe. It’s effective.”
Public Health Director Michelle Stephens said people who are hesitant, for whatever reason, are more likely to listen to their loved ones than any other source, so she encouraged people to talk to their friends and family, listen to their reasoning and direct them to factual information.
Not much else of significance took place during today’s meeting, unless you count the technical problems at the outset — gratuitous lagging and freezing in the county’s digital stream that caused a nearly hourlong delay as the IT department attempted to resolve the issues.
Here are a couple other items the board heard:
- The board heard a brief presentation from staff at Six Rivers National Forest about the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree Project, which will see a local conifer cut down and hauled cross-country for yuletide placement on the West Lawn of the Capitol Building, along with up to 130 companion trees for the offices of D.C. muckety-mucks.
- Planning and Building Director John Ford asked the board to approve submission of a grant application for the second of three rounds of coronavirus funding from the California Department of Housing and Community Development. The county is eligible to apply for $1,104,668, and Ford said that money would go toward two projects — adding an elevator to The Humboldt Inn, a homeless shelter and supportive housing facility in Eureka, and adding sidewalks to the campus of the Redwoods Rural Health Center in Redway, which would facilitate curbside medical services including Covid-19 testing and vaccinations. The board unanimously approved sending the grant application.