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'It's Really Our Choice' 

As Humboldt County continues reopening, health officer stresses 'personal responsibility'

Toward the end of her June 23 presentation to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, Health Officer Teresa Frankovich seemed to cut to the chase. Humboldt County has moved "pretty damn fast" to prepare to meet the COVID-19 pandemic — expanding its capacity to test local residents and conduct the contract tracing investigations needed to isolate the virus, while also expanding local hospital capacity and erecting an alternate care site in case healthcare needs come to exceed existing capacity — leaving the county relatively well prepared. But roughly three months into a declaration of a local health emergency, as businesses continue opening, how the future unfolds is to some extent out of officials' hands.

"Really, frankly, at this point a lot of how this plays out is at the hands of our business owners and community members," she told the board. "Personal responsibility has never been more important than it is now in how we move forward."

Business owners can choose to follow their county approved safety plans, monitoring employees for signs of illness and making sure they wear masks and practice physical distancing measures, she said. Similarly, she said, community members can make sure they're washing their hands, masking up when they go out and refraining from unnecessary travel and gathering with people outside their households, all of which will keep the community safe — including our most vulnerable residents — and on a track toward re-opening schools, youth sports and other functions in the coming months.

"In this pandemic, we're all really public health and fortunately we can all choose to use these tools ... or we can choose to disregard them," she said. "The good news is it's really our choice going forward."

The county took another step on the re-opening path June 23, announcing that by the end of the week it would begin allowing gyms and fitness centers, zoos and museums, movie theaters, wineries, breweries and bars to submit safety plans to the county. If county staff certifies the plans are in conformance with state guidelines designed to keep employees and patrons safe, the businesses would then be cleared to resume operations. It's a notable step as gyms, bars and movie theaters particularly are considered to be higher risk.

But Frankovich has also been blunt that the re-opening of additional sectors of the economy will invariably lead to more positive COVID-19 cases locally and — likely — more deaths.

As the Journal went to press June 23, the Humboldt County Joint Information Center announced that Public Health had confirmed another positive case locally, bringing the tally to date to 113, including four deaths, all of them residents at Eureka's Alder Bay Assisted Living, which suffered an outbreak cluster last month.

Nationally, as of June 23, roughly 8.6 percent of the population has been tested, with an average of one in 12 tests returning positive for a total of 2.3 million cases, including 120,333 fatalities. In California, approximately 8.9 percent of the population has been tested with an average of one in 19 tests returning positive, for a total of 183,073 cases, including 5,580 deaths. But numbers in California have been rising sharply in recent days, with the state hitting a record number of hospitalizations on June 23, with 3,702 hospitalized patients, including 1,199 under intensive care, eclipsing even the worst days in the state's previous peak in late April. And health officials increasingly believe social gatherings are to blame for the spike.

After Sacramento reported 108 new COVID-19 cases over a two-day period, health officials there said 105 were traced to private gatherings in homes, from graduation and birthday parties to barbecues and memorial services. In Shasta County, health officials have linked at least a dozen confirmed COVID-19 cases to a "large family gathering" attended by a man in his 20s who was confirmed to have the virus days later.

Humboldt County's numbers have been good compared to state and national figures — about 6.6 percent of the population tested with roughly one in 79 tests returning positive — Frankovich stressed to the board she believes that's largely due to aggressive mitigation measures, like the shelter in place and mandatory facial covering orders, and contact tracing. The county moved quickly to expand the ranks of its contact investigators, Frankovich said, which has allowed Public Health to, as soon as a local resident is confirmed to have COVID-19, work quickly to find the people they have been in contact with, ensuring they self quarantine, slowing the spread of the disease locally. Frankovich explained that's why local cases have come in gentle waves, increasing steadily over the course of a week or two before slowing until the next wave.

But that's a fragile balance in the midst of re-opening, Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson said while referencing the push to re-open youth sports this summer. As soon as you get dozens of kids and their families gathering — potentially including some from out of the area — there's the risk of a mass spread event that spawns a dozen or so cases at once, which could overwhelm the capacity of local contact investigators to isolate the virus and slow its spread.

Frankovich conceded this is a concern, explaining that the state also has yet to issue guidelines on how to safely re-open youth sports and doing so now would be a violation of the governor's shelter-in-place order, which could potentially jeopardize state funding streams.

For now, the health officer said she is focused on helping those businesses with safety plans that conform to state guidelines open as safely as possible. She urged residents to refrain from gathering with people outside their households, and asked for local law enforcement's help in holding businesses opening in flagrant violation of her order accountable.

Of course, with travel restrictions being eased throughout the state and some local hotels and short-term rentals cleared to re-open, Humboldt County is no longer in a bubble unto itself. Fifth District Steve Madrone raised the alarm that Trinidad is currently being "overrun" with tourists, including many who "arrogantly" flout facial covering and physical distancing directives.

"We are going to see a major outbreak in Trinidad," he warned, pleading with Sheriff William Honsal to ramp up patrols and enforcement. "We need help in Trinidad right now. It is out of control, literally, and I'm not exaggerating."

Honsal said his deputies have been patrolling the city for 40 hours a week, per its contract, and taking an educational approach to enforcement. But the sheriff also noted that Trinidad "thrives" on tourism dollars and he has no intention of ramping up enforcement.

"I do put this back on Trinidad," he said, adding that increased signage about expectations would help. "They have a duty to provide information to their community."

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor and prefers he/him pronouns. Reach him at 4421400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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