One year ago today, the news came: Humboldt had its first confirmed case of COVID-19, which at the time had yet to be detected almost anywhere else in the nation.
The individual, who had recently returned from China, recovered after seeking treatment for flu-like symptoms at St. Joseph Hospital. Exactly a month would pass before a second case, also connected to travel, was recorded. Soon, the first cases of community spread were identified.
In late March of 2020, Humboldt County was placed under a local shelter-in-place order
that shuttered all but essential businesses, sent students home to continue their educations under now familiar distance learning and brought life as most people knew it to an abrupt halt.
“We have to be proactive about limiting existing spread if it is here, or to slow it when it arrives on our doorstep if it’s not already here,” then County Health Officer Teresa Frankovich said at the time. “It’s critically important. We need to protect both our most vulnerable populations and our healthcare system.”
Meanwhile, county officials worked quickly to prepare. Frankovich and her team
expanded Public Health's team of contact tracing investigators to 30, established a 100-bed alternative care site and a testing facility in partnership with the state at Redwood Acres Fairgrounds and expanded the availability of personal protective equipment locally.
At the same time, local hospitals planned to accommodate surges
, ordering new ventilators, renting others and planning to convert operating rooms into intensive care units.
While a slow relaxing of restrictions
began by May, the cases continued and a COVID-19 outbreak at Alder Bay Assisted Living brought the county's the first death.
Photo by Mark McKenna
Ida Newell at her 85th birthday party at Roy's Club in Eureka in 2007.
Her name was Ida Adelia Newell
, a lifelong Humboldt County resident with colorful connections to her community who died on May 17. She was 97. Three others would follow.
Another outbreak at the Granada Rehabilitation and Wellness Center led to 13 deaths, with dozens of Granada residents and staff at the facility testing positive.
Public Health this week announced that a never-before-seen variant of the virus
, which appears to have been limited to the Granada outbreak, has been identified by genomic testing and it may have been more contagious.
To date, Humboldt County has confirmed 3,067 cases, with 130 hospitalizations and 32 confirmed COVID-19 related deaths.
There's also been the economic toll. Food pantries have been overwhelmed as people lined up for distanced drive-through food box distributions, longtime local businesses have closed and Humboldt residents applied for unemployment benefits in unprecedented numbers.
But, overall, the region fared far better than its Bay Area and Southern California counterparts for much of 2020 when its came to COVID case counts until November, when, amid colder weather and the holiday season, Humboldt joined most of the state in the purple, or "widespread" risk.
Except for a brief repass to the less restrictive red tier in January, that's where the community remains to this day.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify how many vaccine doses have been administered in Humboldt County.
Now at the one-year mark, there are some signs things are moving in a better direction.
Last week saw 85 COVID cases confirmed
— the county's lowest number since mid-November — which represents a continued decrease from January, when the county was confirming 200-plus new cases a week.
And, vaccinations are underway for certain priority groups, including those age 70 and older, healthcare workers and school staff. As of Thursday, 24,212 doses have been administered in Humboldt County, according to a state database.
In a media availability earlier this week, County Health Officer Ian Hoffman said there are indications that Humboldt could return to the red, or "substantial" risk, tier on Tuesday, when the state releases its new COVID-19 data.
Humboldt County Public Health
County Health Officer Ian Hoffman
"I think we're in a different place then the last time it happened in early January," he said. "At that time, our case counts were very high overall, the case investigations were just becoming bigger and bigger each day that went by. We have noticed in the last few weeks the number of investigations have gone down dramatically, so it feels like this time, if we go into the red tier next week, it’s going to stick."
He also said he anticipates there will be movement in the coming weeks and months as far as schools beginning to reopen and changes on the state level regarding how businesses can operate.
But Hoffman said testing is down, a trend mirrored across the state and the nation, something likely attributed, at least in part, to "people are getting tired of the pandemic."
"We have the capacity to test broadly and I think it’s important that we continue to do so. Given the variants that are out there ... there could be another surge in the coming months," he said. "Continuing to get tested is extremely important."