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One Year Ago

Humboldt marks anniversary of first COVID-19 case

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One year ago on Feb. 20, 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. When the test came back positive, Humboldt became the first rural county in the United States to have a confirmed case, according to the New York Times.

For hospital staff, it was a monumental moment.

"That's when it was like, 'OK, this can actually happen here,'" St. Joseph emergency room charge nurse Kristen Beddow told the Journal in December.

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 ranks 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.

The Humboldt County Public Health Laboratory grew its testing capacity 10-fold in a matter of months.

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 first death.

Her name was Ida Adelia Newell, a lifelong Humboldt County resident with colorful connections to her community. She died May 17 at the age of 97.

Three others would follow.

Another outbreak at the Granada Rehabilitation and Wellness Center led to 13 deaths, with 100 Granada residents and staff members 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.

As of Feb. 23, Humboldt County had confirmed 3,136 cases, with 133 hospitalizations and 33 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.

Overall, when it came to COVID case counts, the region fared far better than its Bay Area and Southern California counterparts for much of 2020 until November, when, amid colder weather and the holiday season, Humboldt joined most of the state in the purple, or "widespread," risk tier.

Except for a brief repass to the less restrictive red tier in January, that's where the community remained until Tuesday, when the state moved Humboldt, Marin, San Mateo, Shasta and Yolo counties back down to the "substantial" risk zone, meaning some businesses can reopen for indoor service, including restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and places of worship.

At the one-year mark, there are some signs things are moving in a better direction.

The second to last week of February 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 Feb. 23, 26,278 vaccine doses — including both first and second injections — had been given to Humboldt County residents, according to a state database, roughly 12 percent of the total number needed to fully vaccinate the entire adult population locally.

County Health Officer Ian Hoffman told the board of supervisors Feb. 23 he was optimistic about where the county was headed and that the move to the red tier was "likely to stick."

"We feel this is a much better position than we were in January when we made it into the red tier," he said, noting that at the time case counts were very high overall and county just made it into the less restrictive tier by the smallest of margins.

Now, Hoffman said, those data sets are trending in a positive direction although hospitalizations rates remain high overall, which may be because Humboldt is "still seeing the tail end of the surge."

But, as he also noted in a recent media availability, Hoffman said testing is down, a trend mirrored across the state and the nation, something likely attributed, at least in part, to people "getting tired of the pandemic."

On Feb. 23, he echoed the same call for people to continue regular testing, saying it was an important tool in controlling the virus' spread, preventing another surge and staving off a return to a more restrictive risk tier, especially as businesses and more schools prepared to open and youth sports ready to gear up.

"We really want to encourage people to utilize that test," Hoffman said, noting the most common form of transmission continues to be "from someone you know," whether it is a member of the household or from gatherings.

While vaccine deliveries have been delayed by severe weather across the country and a national shortfall continues, Hoffman said the situation is expected to improve in the coming weeks and, depending on vaccine supply, the region could hit a point by spring or summer when there is no longer a line for a shot.

"We are making good headway," Hoffman said.

He also took some time to recognize that one year has passed since news of the spread of the virus came to the world's collective attention, bringing about profound changes to our daily lives.

"We all came together to avert disaster," Hoffman said. "To protect lives and to protect our community."

Kimberly Wear (she/her) is the Journal's digital editor. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 323, or kim@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.

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