Breaking Down a Dizzying Week of COVID-19 and What it Means for Humboldt

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When Humboldt County Health Officer Ian Hoffman sat virtually before the Board of Supervisors on March 9 to offer an update on the local COVID-19 response, his tone was cautiously optimistic.

“It feels like we’re really at a point of palpable change in this pandemic,” he told the board, noting that case rates and hospitalizations were falling as vaccinations were picking up. “We’re looking forward to some return to normalcy.”

But Hoffman stressed the gains are fragile and the road ahead potentially long.

“Each small gain is tenuous and can be fraught with complications,” he said. “I want to encourage all of us to be patient.”

A county press release issued a couple of hours later seemed to underscore Hoffman’s point, announcing the county’s 34th COVID-related death — the first since Feb. 22 — a local resident in their 70s.

The past week has brought a flurry of pandemic news from around the nation, state and local community. Here’s what you need to know.

Epidemiology

While Humboldt health officials warned last week that the county could once again land in California’s most restrictive purple “widespread” COVID-19 risk tier — which would again shutter some businesses and further restrict others — that didn’t happen. When state updated the tiers as the Journal went to press March 9, Humboldt County remained firmly in the red “substantial” risk tier.

The state primarily uses two metrics to determine a county’s tier placement — the average number of new cases confirmed per 100,000 residents and the average percentage of testing samples that come back positive for the virus, both over a seven-day period. In the latest sample period, Humboldt County had confirmed an average of 6.6 new cases per 100,000 residents with a test positivity rate of 2.3 percent. Both represent substantial improvements.

In his presentation to the board, Hoffman noted that at one point in January the county was averaging 26 new cases daily per 100,000 residents. And while the county had a test positivity rate hit 9.9 percent in January, it had dipped to 5.2 percent through the first nine days of March.

“We are in a much better place now than we were just a month ago,” Hoffman said.

And following the dip in cases, the rate of hospitalizations has also slowed in recent weeks to the point that Hoffman told the board he would be removing the daily hospitalization totals and available intensive care unit capacity from the county’s dashboard because “it has much less relevance now.” (As of March 9, four patients were hospitalized locally with COVID-19, including one in intensive care, while available ICU capacity sat at 25 percent.)

Vaccines

Humboldt County is currently vaccinating local residents ages 65 and up, as well as healthcare providers, teachers and first responders.

“We’ve so far vaccinated 28 percent of the eligible population in Humboldt County with at least one dose of vaccine,” Hoffman said, adding that mirrors statewide numbers and the county continues to get the “vaccine into arms within a week of arrival.”

Supply, he said, remains to be the limiting factor.

“We continue to be slowed not by capacity but by the supply of vaccine,” Hoffman said.

There’s hope, however, that’s beginning to change. The county’s vaccine allocation for the week of March 8 — more than 5,000 doses — was by far the largest to date and also included 200 doses of the newly authorized single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine. President Joe Biden’s administration, meanwhile, has promised there will be enough supply to vaccinate all adults in the nation in May.

And those already fully vaccinated — including 10,435 Humboldt County residents as of March 9, according to the county’s dashboard — got some more good news March 8 when the Centers for Disease Control revised its guidance, allowing them to resume aspects of pre-pandemic life two weeks after receiving their final vaccine dose. Specifically, the new guidelines allow fully vaccinated people to visit with one another indoors in private residences without masks or physical distancing and to even visit unmasked with people who are not yet vaccinated so long as they are considered “low risk” for serious illness from the virus, giving a green light for fully vaccinated grandparents to visit and even hug their unvaccinated grandkids.

But the agency stressed that fully vaccinated people should still mask and practice physical distancing in public and refrain from any non-essential travel, while also avoiding close, unmasked interactions with anyone considered at “high risk” of serious illness.

As to anyone locally who is currently eligible for the vaccine, health officials urge them to fill out a vaccine interest form (available at the county’s website: www.humboldtgov.org) or call the Joint Information Center at 441-5000 for assistance. Once registered, residents will be contacted to schedule their vaccination.

Blue Shield

Vaccine distribution in California, meanwhile, is about to undergo a major overhaul.

The state announced last week that Blue Shield will take over distributing vaccines throughout the Golden State in phases, implementing a uniform approach that does away with the patchwork of eligibility policies currently in place throughout the state’s 58 counties. The health insurance giant will be tasked with streamlining and managing the logistics of allocating vaccines to local health departments and other vaccine providers, taking over swaths of counties in three waves, beginning with the Central Valley, before moving onto the state’s most populous counties and then the final wave, which will include Humboldt County.

Hoffman said he had his first conference call with Blue Shield last week and “many details need to be worked out before the change in early April.”

But the state also quickly announced that it would be dramatically overhauling other aspects of its allocation framework, too, by allocating 40 percent of its vaccine supply — starting with 2 million doses — to its poorest and most diverse communities. The state has identified these communities as the ZIP codes ranking in the bottom 25 percent of the state’s Health Places Index, which ranks ZIP codes on a number of factors, including household income, access to education and healthcare, and disparities in health outcomes.

Hoffman told the board March 9 that 13 of Humboldt County’s ZIP codes fall into the index’s bottom 25 percent and he expected to find out this week how that would impact the number of vaccine doses allocated to the county moving forward. (People in those ZIP codes, however, will still need to meet state eligibility criteria in order to receive the vaccine.)

Adding a final layer of uncertainty to all this is the state’s announcement that it will change its COVID risk tier metrics once the state hits certain vaccination goals — first vaccinating 2 million residents in these more socioeconomically disadvantaged ZIP codes, then 4 million — making it easier for counties to move into less restrictive tiers. (For example, once the state hits the 2-million target, it will move the purple tier threshold for average daily cases per 100,000 residents from seven cases to 10.)

Despite the shifting priorities, metrics and allocation plans, Hoffman said the big hurdle remains the same.

“There’s just not enough vaccine, so we have to be patient,” he said, adding that everything else is in place locally to hold clinics that administer hundreds — or even 1,000 — doses daily.

Sports and Performances

Local residents also got some eagerly anticipated news this week, as the state approved the return of youth and recreational sports and live performances.

On the sports front, all youth and recreational sports are now cleared to return to play with added safety measures and testing requirements in place and — for now — a prohibition on fans. On the youth side, however, “age-appropriate supervision” is allowed, meaning parents can take their kids to games and watch them play. Beyond that, it’s a bit murky and Hoffman told the board he has been unable to get clarification on what the term means and exactly who is permitted to be on the sidelines or in the stands for youth sports.

On the live performances front, they remain mostly prohibited but that will soon change. Currently, the only live performances allowed are essentially those providing ambiance music at a restaurant or in other venues where the performance is not the central draw. (If that delineation sounds confusing, it is. Some local restaurants have booked and promoted live bands but stopped short of selling tickets or charging a cover for attendance, which has apparently kept them on the right side of the line from Public Health’s perspective.)

But the state has announced that beginning in April, it will allow outdoor live performances and spectator sporting events with certain safety precautions and tier-based capacity limits in place. The safety precautions, Hoffman said, will be designed to keep people from mingling closely with folks outside their household.

“We don’t want to encourage multiple households to get together in an unsafe way until we’re in a better place with the virus,” he said, adding that officials will continue to urge masking, distancing, hand washing and avoiding the mixing of households moving forward.

Wrapping up his prepared remarks to the board March 9, Hoffman returned to the concept of patience.

“I want to encourage us all to be patience and understanding as we unwind this very difficult situation we’ve been in for the past year,” he said. “Things will seem to move both fast and slow at the same time. Some of the things that come out will seem contradictory or inconsistent, and they probably will be as we figure out what is safer, and what can be let go. Everyone at all levels of public health are working hard to continue the balance of opening safely with protecting this very early and fragile recovery.”

Editor's note: This story was updated from a previous version to correct information regarding vaccine eligibility in Humboldt County. The Journal regrets the error.

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