STOCKTON — When asked by supervisors to pinpoint which industry caused the county to be demoted to the purple tier of the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy, Dr. Maggie Park said both public and private gatherings were the driving factor.
“This is not the fault of any one restaurant, one gym or one place of worship,” Park told the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. “I see this as a call to put forward to the public, and the best we can do is ask people to please look at what’s going on around them and act accordingly.”
Park, the county’s public health official, said that according to state data, gatherings make up 15% COVID-19 outbreaks reported over the course of the pandemic, as do hospitals. Restaurants, gyms and churches each account for just 7% or less of all outbreaks in California.
Park further told the board that she and her staff are imploring public officials at all levels to urge their constituents to continue wearing face coverings and avoid large gatherings as much as possible to slow the spread of COVID-19 if they want to return to the red, less restrictive tier of reopening the economy.
New guidance from the California Department of Public Health on Monday encourages all gatherings to be held outdoors and not involve more than three different households. If gathering indoors, the state recommends increasing air circulation by opening windows or doors as much as possible. Gatherings should also not last more than two hours, the state said.
“I know people want to get out of the house and do things,” she said. “And if you do want to go out and visit local shops, look at what their businesses capacity is, see if the number of people inside is beyond that, and try to do some other way of giving them your business like ordering online. Do whatever you can to keep our mom and pop stores open.”
Park’s urgency comes a day after Gov. Gavin Newsom relegated 28 counties across the state back into the purple COVID-19 transmission tier as cases continue to increase.
San Joaquin County was demoted because its new daily case rate rose from 8.3 cases per 100,000 residents last week to 16.4 cases per 100,000 residents. That’s 119 new cases a day in the county, Park said.
In addition, the county’s test positivity rate increased from 4% last week to 7.4% on Monday.
The county will remain in the purple tier for at least three weeks until it can bring down its new case rate, test positivity rate and health equity rates.
While its test positivity rate and health equity rate qualify for the red tier, the county’s new case rate must be reduced to less than 7 per day per 100,000 residents — or 55 cases a day — before it can advance again.
Park said the only way to do that is to continue adhering to consistent hand washing, social distancing and wearing masks.
“I know people are tired of hearing that, but that’s all we have right now,” she said. “We can still climb out of this.”
In all, 41 of the state’s 58 counties were placed in the purple tier Monday, while 11 were assigned to the red tier.
Only Alpine and Mendocino counties remained in the least restrictive yellow tier Monday, while Lassen, Sierra, Calaveras and Inyo counties remained in the orange, or moderate transmission tier.
As of Monday, San Joaquin County was reporting 24,171 total COVID-19 cases during the pandemic, as well as 504 deaths, she said.
In addition, the county’s re-infection rate has returned to 1.26, meaning every resident currently infected with the virus — 1,664 — has the potential to transmit it to 1.26 people. The state’s re-infection rate is 1.22, Park said.
While the county was in the red tier, Park said 37 COVID-19 cases were reported at schools across the county, 40 classes had to be quarantined and 64 teachers tested positive, as well as 23 office staffers and five cafeteria workers.
Three football teams and three coaches also had to quarantine.
In addition to new guidance for gatherings, the state issued new guidance for wearing face coverings. Prior to Monday, masks were required when waiting to enter a business or inside a business.
Now, all residents must wear masks outside their homes unless they are driving alone or with members of their household, working alone in a room or office, are eating or drinking and are six feet from the nearest person, or are outdoors and are maintaining six feet of social distancing.
Those obtaining medical service through the nose or mouth are exempt from the guidance, as are workers who need to wear respiratory equipment.
Children younger than two years old are also exempt, as well as those with medical conditions that prevent wearing masks, those who are hearing impaired or communicating with the hearing impaired and need to read lips, or those for whom wearing a mask creates a risk at work.
Dan Burch, San Joaquin County Emergency Medical Services Agency administrator, said the state is anticipating as many as 950 hospitalizations a day from COVID-19 in the coming weeks, however, county hospitals are in good shape.
As of Tuesday, there were 81 total COVID-19 patients admitted to all seven hospitals in San Joaquin County. Of those, 14 were being treated at Adventist Health Lodi Memorial. Four of those were in an intensive care unit and one was on a ventilator.
Burch said there is no shortage of personal protective equipment for hospital employees, but there is a major concern that facilities will not be privileged to federal assistance this winter like they had been over the summer.
“The resilience of our health care workers and keeping them safe is a primary concern,” Burch said. “When we had previous outbreaks, we had federal resources to assist us. Because we now have this national spike, and even a state spike, there is not enough of that resource to go around this time. So it’s even more important that our hospital staff can be protected.”