Health Officer Teresa Frankovich reads a prepared statement.
County Health Officer Teresa Frankovich said yesterday that she was simply “trying to make safe choices for the entire community” when, citing an increased prevalence of COVID-19 in the local community, she urged Humboldt State University to postpone plans to bring students into on-campus housing and resume limited in-person instruction in an Aug. 11 email to HSU President Tom Jackson Jr.
“In light of our current epidemiology, I was concerned and expressed that concern to the HSU planning group,” Frankovich said, reading from a prepared statement at the beginning her media availability. “Later that day, the state released guidance for higher education and reopening. This affirmed my concerns. It was clear that with our increasing case counts, multiple outbreaks, current testing capacity and need, as well as contact investigation demands, we did not meet state recommendations regarding on-site instruction.”
In a pair of email responses, Jackson told Frankovich her concerns were “noted” but questioned her motivation and competence, at one point sharing a link to the state guidelines “in case” she wasn’t “familiar with them.” He went on to say HSU would proceed with its plans and demanded to know at once if Frankovich planned to use her authority to “obstruct” them, warning that doing so would have reverberating economic impacts on the campus and the region. He also refers to Frankovich’s “focus on HSU students” as “inequitable and perplexing,” noting that businesses throughout the county have been allowed to reopen and tourists continue to visit the area unencumbered. The email makes plain that Jackson feels Frankovich’s concerns are more about the failings of Public Health, both generally and to prepare for HSU’s plans, than the plans themselves. Jackson charged there were “prejudicial statements” in Frankovich’s email and that it’s “irresponsible to assume that students from outside the county are a threat.”
“HSU also houses some people that may have housing insecurities, low income or are coming from abusive environments,” Jackson wrote. “I doubt you are suggesting we put these people on the street. We also house many persons of color. Again, I do not think you are suggesting we put these individuals out onto the street or suggest they should not progress toward a degree in this community, but your position will lead us there.”
Yesterday, in her first public remarks since the email exchange was made public pursuant to a Journal public records request, Frankovich defended her position and her department.
“Let me make one thing clear: This is not a case of othering. It is a case of trying to make safe choices for the entire community in the midst of a pandemic,” she said. “This is about trying to juggle competing needs for testing resources across skilled nursing facilities, agricultural settings, tribal communities, local public schools, businesses and organizations and the community as a whole…
“Insinuations of racism and flat allegations of incompetence have been directed toward me and this incredible health department I proudly represent, simply for stating the facts. That has been disheartening, to say the least. I admit the timing in asking for a pause was terrible, as timing often is in a pandemic. There is no doubt about that, but partners meet, talk and try to figure out what might work. They find solutions. That is what we are now doing alongside our HSU partners.”
HSU began a phased process of moving students into on-campus housing Aug. 15, when approximately 225 students arrived on campus. About 550 are expected to move in throughout this week. All are being asked to quarantine in their rooms for 14 days prior to co-mingling and exploring campus.
Humboldt County, meanwhile, has seen a sharp increase in the level of COVID-19 circulating locally, with 100 new cases confirmed so far this month, the same number reported for all of July. And the spike in cases has come amid limitations in local testing capacity, as the labs that process samples taken from the OptumServe testing site at Redwood Acres are suffering backlogs amid increasing state and national demands for testing, leading to delays of a week or more in returning test results — rendering them somewhat useless in Public Health’s efforts to promptly identify and isolate infections.
At Public Health’s urging, HSU has adopted a plan for student health staff to test all students moving into on-campus housing. As of yesterday, that effort had seen three students test positive for the virus but it remains unclear how many student tests have been processed to date.
Watch Frankovich’s full media availability, including the reading of her prepared statement, below.