'Concerned' Health Officer Advises Schools to Close Following Thanksgiving, Expecting Surge in COVID-19 Cases


Humboldt County Health Officer Teresa Frankovich. - SUBMITTED
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  • Humboldt County Health Officer Teresa Frankovich.
On the heels of a week that saw a record 73 new COVID-19 cases confirmed in the midst of the largest spike in virus activity locally since the pandemic began, Humboldt County Health Officer Teresa Frankovich increasingly raised alarm bells this week. She is recommending local schools shift to distance learning for the two weeks following Thanksgiving in anticipation of a continued surge in infections.

“I want to make it very clear that I am also concerned,” Frankovich said in a media availability yesterday, adding that she expects the surge in case activity to continue for at least a couple more weeks and that it’s “very likely” to move the county into the state’s most restrictive “widespread” purple risk tier of regulations. “When you look at our local case counts, we’ve more than tripled those very recently and acceleration at this pace is exactly the thing we’ve been trying to avoid throughout.”

California moved Humboldt County from the state’s lowest risk tier — “minimal” or yellow — to “substantial,” or red, Monday, skipping over the “moderate” orange tier entirely. And that was before the county confirmed more cases this week than it saw in the entirety of October.

The state of California largely depends on two metrics to determine where a county falls in its tier system: the percentage of COVID-19 tests administered that come back positive over a seven-day period and the average number of new positive cases confirmed per 100,000 in population daily over the course of a week. Both have spiked locally over the course of the last month. The population-adjusted daily average of new cases went from less than one in the last week of October to 7.7 this past week, which is high enough to push Humboldt County into the state’s purple "widespread" tier. The test-positivity rate, meanwhile, has gone from 0.6 percent in the last week of October to 3.5 percent last week — indicating a significant spike in virus activity in the community.

Frankovich has repeatedly said it's social gatherings between households and travel that have driven the rate of spread locally. Now, she says, colder weather seems to be pushing more social gatherings indoors, which is much riskier.

“Those drivers are getting us in trouble — there’s no doubt about it,” she said.
And with the Thanksgiving holiday approaching next week, Frankovich said it’s crucially important residents refrain from having dinners or get-togethers with anyone with whom they do not live.

“I’m asking everyone to really join on board and stop the gathering,” she said. “We have to stop the gathering or we are not going to see this slow.”

The ripple effects of the elevated case counts are starting to become apparent. According to a state database, Humboldt County currently has three confirmed COVID-19 patients hospitalized locally, with another three suspected to have COVID-19. Fortuna Union High School, meanwhile, announced that two of its students have tested positive for the disease, prompting it to quarantine other groups of students, while Ridgewood Elementary in Cutten also informed parents that it has put a classroom pod in quarantine following a COIVD-19 exposure, according to a report in the Lost Coast Outpost. In Arcata, Campground, Wildflower and Salt restaurants all announced this week they are closing temporarily after staff members tested positive or were exposed to COVID-19.

In another indication of the state of her alarm, Frankovich penned a Nov. 17 letter to all county school districts, a day after the Fortuna Union High School District board had voted to stay the course on having students on campus for in-person instruction. Long a proponent of having students on campus where safe, Frankovich urged local districts to take a break.

“Considering the conditions across the country, state and increasingly our own county, there are significant concerns regarding increasing transmission after the Thanksgiving holiday,” she wrote. “Humboldt County Public Health remains supportive of schools continuing in-person education in the red tier. However, travel and gatherings are currently an enormous driver of local cases. At this time, Humboldt County Public Health is strongly recommending that schools move to distance learning for the 14-day period following the Thanksgiving holiday. Although schools have done a remarkable job of implementing preventative measures to promote safety in on-site education, we anticipate a marked increase in local infections due to travel and gatherings occurring around Thanksgiving. This would threaten rapid identification and containment of cases, leading to increased transmission in the school setting.”

In her media availability yesterday, Frankovich indicated the coming week will be critical for Humboldt County’s trajectory in navigating COVID-19. The health officer pleaded with local residents who do test positive for the virus to be fully open and honestly with county contact investigators, who are spread thin with the surge in cases and are vitally important to efforts to quickly identify and contain case clusters before they spread further into the community.
But mostly, Frankovich urged residents to refrain from travel and gathering, and if they must get together with people outside their household for the holiday, she said it’s imperative they do so outdoors and distanced.

“There really is not a safe way to have a gathering around a table, eating with masks off indoors — there isn’t. There just isn’t,” she said. “Being outdoors if you’re going to be with others is critically important.”

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