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Fresno County teeters as COVID-19 cases increase. Could businesses face renewed restrictions?

Fresno Bee logoFresno Bee 10/24/2020 Tim Sheehan, The Fresno Bee

Fresno County remains teetering on the edge of confronting renewed limitations on restaurants, businesses and schools based on a rising number of confirmed coronavirus cases in recent weeks.

Dr. Rais Vohra, the county’s interim health officer, acknowledged the concerns Friday in a media briefing with reporters, prior to reporting more than 140 new cases and six additional deaths. “That’s what we need to brace ourselves for,” Vohra said.

Fresno County resides in Tier 2 of California’s four-level, color-coded Blueprint for a Safer Economy. Tier 2 is coded red to represent “substantial” risk of COVID-19 transmission in the community. But since entering Tier 2 in late September, the county – like some other counties in California – have been wobbling near the threshold of having to return to purple Tier 1, the most restrictive of the levels in terms of limitations for reopening or expanding operations at businesses, churches and schools.

Under Tier 2, restaurants can offer indoor dining at up to 25% capacity, churches can hold indoor worship services at up to 25% capacity, and gyms can open indoors at up to 10% capacity.

If Fresno County backslides into Tier 1 when the state Department of Public Health issues its next update on Tuesday (Oct. 27), churches and gyms could not operate indoors, and restaurants would have to limit service to take-out or outdoor dining – a limitation they faced throughout the summer.

“We’re skirting that border between red and purple,” Vohra said Friday. “I know that every Tuesday morning, a lot of people have kind of a panic attack, whether they’re running a small business (or) working at the health department. They have to make some major decisions based on which tier we’re falling into.”

“That’s an unfortunate side effect of this blueprint, that every Tuesday morning, all over the state, there are restaurant owners, people who operate gyms, people who work there, who really depend on us being in red or beyond,” he added. “And if we get dragged back into purple, then they are going to have major disruptions in their lives.”

To remain in red Tier 2, Fresno County must meet two major requirements set by the state:

Maintain an adjusted average daily rate of seven new coronavirus cases for every 100,000 residents; and

Have no more than 8% of residents who are tested for COVID-19 show positive results for the infection on a weekly basis.

A county must meet both standards to stay in the red tier. But in the state’s update this week, Fresno County’s new-case rate was above that purple/red threshold, at 7.3 per 100,000 residents. If the county remains above the seven-case threshold for a second week, it can be reassigned to the more restrictive purple tier.

The county’s testing positivity rate was 5.2%.

Over the past few days, Fresno County’s average daily case counts have increased, more than doubling over the past 12 days. At the same time, Vohra said, the county is lagging in the volume of testing needed to avoid being penalized by the state in adjustments to its rate of cases per 100,000.

“Our expectation is that we should be testing 2,400 to 2,800 people a day for a county our size. What the state is telling us is that we’re lagging by about 400 to 500 tests per day,” Vohra said. “It doesn’t seem like it’s a whole lot, but it does count against us. … We’ve gotten penalized a couple of weeks in a row.”

Why are cases increasing?

The increase in new cases seems to be a result of people letting their guard down when it comes to recommended virus-safety practices in public or among family and friends.

“People are saying, ‘Yes, I know someone who had coronavirus and for whatever reason I didn’t have my guard up, I didn’t have my mask on, I just had to spend time with those people,’” Vohra said. “And here they’ve become symptomatic or they’ve gotten tested and it’s positive.”

“There’s a huge number of other people that just have no knowledge of anyone else that has coronavirus and yet when they get tested, it comes back positive,” he added. “That’s the community spread, when you don’t know who gave it to you.”

Few cases appear to be related to outbreaks from expanded indoor operations at restaurants, churches or schools, Vohra said.

“What’s really driving these numbers is very preventable, in my opinion,” he added. “Wherever people choose to gather without wearing masks, perhaps gathering indoors, doing it for a long period of time – all of those are high-risk activities that really can be done differently and safely.”

“Do it outdoors. Stay six feet away, even from your best friends,” Vohra said. “Wear a mask, even around your family. … This is basically what the science is showing us will protect the population, and it’s not just theoretical; it’s a very practical number of things that we all need to be doing all the time.”

How may schools be affected?

If Fresno County finds itself reassigned into purple Tier 1 after next week’s update, the effects on schools will be mixed.

Elementary schools that already received waivers to resume in-person classroom teaching under the purple tier won’t be affected. It’s a different matter for middle schools or high schools that had to wait until Fresno County was in the red tier for three weeks before they could resume instruction.

“The short answer is: They’ll have to wait, if they’re a middle school or high school,” Vohra said Friday. “Right now we’re still in red and we’re hearing more and more about different schools getting ready to open. Some smaller school districts have already gone ahead and started having in-person classes.”

For those middle or high schools that have managed to resume classroom instruction, “the state says it’s OK to continue operating” even if the county backslides into purple Tier 1, he said. “If the school has already reopened, (the state) doesn’t want to disrupt (them because of) the confusing mixed messaging that happens whenever kids are shuffled into school and then shuffled out, and the amount of disruption that causes.”

Schools that have reopened face a Fresno County requirements for 10% of their staff to be tested for the coronavirus each month – a sort of early-warning system to give county health officials a heads-up about possible outbreaks.

There is no testing requirement for children attending school, however.

“But screening and temperature checks and masks and distancing – all of those are just part and parcel of what you can expect at schools,” Vohra said. “If a child becomes symptomatic, then we would work with the family and the pediatrician to offer testing because then it becomes a little more important to get that testing done” because of possible exposure for classmates or school staff.

Around the Valley

Friday’s coronavirus updates from counties in the central San Joaquin Valley include:

Fresno County: 143 new cases Friday, 30,471 since the first confirmed cases in early March; six additional deaths, 436 to date. Fresno County is in red Tier 2 of the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy.

Kings County: 16 new cases Friday, 8,196 to date; no additional deaths, 83 to date. The cumulative case totals include 3,634 infections among inmates at state prisons in Avenal and Corcoran. Kings County is in red Tier 2 of the state blueprint.

Madera County: 36 new cases Friday, 4,981 to date; one additional death, 74 to date. Madera County is in purple Tier 1 of the state’s blueprint.

Mariposa County: No new cases Friday, 78 to date; no additional deaths, two to date. Mariposa County is in yellow Tier 4, the least restrictive level of the state’s blueprint.

Merced County: 26 new cases Friday, 9,465 to date; one additional death, 155 to date. Merced County is in red Tier 2 of the state blueprint.

Tulare County: 70 new cases Friday, 17,495 to date; two additional deaths, 286 to date. Tulare County is in purple Tier 1 of the state blueprint.

Like Fresno County, Merced County’s average rate of new cases ticked back above the 7-per-100,000 threshold, threatening to send the county back into the purple tier if the rate stays up for a second straight week.

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©2020 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)

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