Humboldt County awoke March 24 with two confirmed cases of COVID-19 amid a shelter-in-place order that had shuttered businesses across the county and drastically altered North Coast life. By the time this edition of the Journal went off to the press that night, three additional positive tests had come back from the labs.
Two of the positive tests announced March 24 stemmed from a group of people who'd been traveling internationally together.
"Health officials are reaching out to all members of the groups and conducting a comprehensive investigation of all possible contacts," a press release from Public Health announced, later adding that the investigation had grown to include multiple states. "Symptomatic members of the group will be tested and isolated while results are pending. Asymptomatic travel partners will be quarantined."
A fifth positive test announced later March 24 by Public Health came with no further details, just a note that the agency would provide additional information March 25.
A day earlier, Humboldt County Public Health Officer Teresa Frankovich, speaking in a video response to reports' inquiries, stressed the need for local residents to socially distance and shelter in place per her order that went into effect at 12 a.m. on March 20. The order, violation of which is a misdemeanor offense punishable by imprisonment or a fine, restricts residents from leaving their homes except for essentials — things like trips to the grocery store, pharmacy, veterinarian or doctor — or to perform essential services, like work in a hospital, act as a caretaker, work in public safety or at a utility company.
The order prompted businesses throughout Humboldt County — from retail shops and sit-down restaurants to bars and breweries — to shutter, with what many predict will be dire economic consequences. Some businesses moved quickly to reduce staff and lay off employees. For example, Lost Coast Brewery laid off 70 employees — roughly three-quarters of its staff — while Eel River Brewing Co. laid off 40, according to a Lost Coast Outpost report.
But health officials have maintained the order is necessary to stave off spread of the contagious virus and prevent Humboldt County's healthcare system — which has just about two dozen intensive care unit beds and about as many ventilators — from becoming overwhelmed.
"The whole point of us all making this sacrifice is it improves our odds," Frankovich said. "It is critically important that people adhere to social distancing."
In addition to limiting outings to essential needs, officials have stressed that also means keeping a distance of at least 6 feet from anyone who doesn't reside in your home, except as needed to deliver or purchase food and supplies or healthcare services.
Local law enforcement, meanwhile, is reminding residents not to call 911 for non-emergency shelter-in-place questions.
Eureka Police Chief Steve Watson noted on Facebook that residents had called to complain of "too many people shopping at Costco and walking at Sequoia Park." He also urged residents to take the order seriously.
"People need to take COVID-19 with an appropriate balance of calm urgency," he said. "This is a real crisis and social distancing/isolation through orders like this are a proven strategy to slow or stop the spread of the virus."
As to how widespread the virus is locally, it's unknown due to the low number of tests and the fact that some people can carry and spread the coronavirus without having symptoms. Frankovich explained that Public Health is triaging testing to make sure it uses the almost 400 tests it had on hand as of March 23 to test the most vulnerable, those at the highest risk and those whose infection could have the greatest impact. For example, people who have a known contact with a positive case and are symptomatic, those with both symptoms and underlying health issues and those at risk of spreading the disease widely or to a vulnerable population, like healthcare workers or long-term care residents.
Frankovich urged anyone experiencing mild symptoms — including fever, cough, shortness of breath, runny nose — to self-isolate until three days after all symptoms subside or seven days after their first onset, whichever is longer. They should not call their healthcare provider or seek testing, she said, unless they have underlying health issues or the symptoms grow more severe. Even once testing is more widely available, Frankovich said the county will still urge "mildly ill" people to stay home in an effort to conserve medical resources and protect healthcare workers.
In a press release, Public Health urged anyone who travels outside the area to self-isolate for at least 14 days upon their return.
"This act of quarantining is critically important," the press release states. "It will help to slow transmission within our community, reduce risk for our most vulnerable residents and will lessen the impact on our healthcare system."
To keep up with the latest daily COVID-19 developments, visit www.northcoastjournal.com. And those concerned about symptoms can consult St. Joseph Health's virtual assessment tool (www.providence.org/patients-and-visitors-coronavirus-advisory) or call Humboldt County Public Health at 445-6200.
Journal staffers Iridian Casarez, Thadeus Greenson and Kimberly Wear contributed to this report.