California announced as the Journal went to press Nov. 10 that Humboldt County would remain in the state's minimal COVID-19 risk tier for the week, one of just five counties in the state to fall into the category as caseloads continue to spike throughout the Golden State and the country.
Humboldt County confirmed 34 COVID-19 cases in the first week in November — the largest week total since September — and had confirmed 53 cases by Nov. 10, after confirming 59 cases in all of October.
Nationally, case counts continue to surge, with more than 100,000 new cases confirmed daily and a seven-day average of 33 new cases confirmed daily per 100,000 in population. Six states are seeing daily averages above 88 per 100,000 people.
Addressing the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors recently, Health Officer Teresa Frankovich said the case trajectory was expected.
"Nationally, the trend is increasing and that's not entirely surprising, both in terms of openings but also most likely because we're seeing an increase in the winter, colder weather," she said. "People are moving indoors and we know transmission occurs more easily indoors, so we knew this was going to be a struggle going into the fall and winter months."
Locally, that seems to paint a bit of a foreboding picture and raises questions about how long the county is going to be able to stay in the state's least restrictive minimal risk tier.
First, as noted above, the county's case counts are trending upward, as is its testing positivity rate, or the percentage of local COVID-19 tests that come back positive for the virus. While the county had enjoyed a few weeks with 2 or fewer new cases confirmed per 100,000 residents and a positivity rate below 1 percent, both those metrics have shifted noticeably this month. As of Nov. 10, the county had seen a testing positivity rate of 2.2 percent, with a daily average of 3.9 new cases confirmed per 100,000 residents so far in November.
And cases are spiking locally just as the weather is beginning to turn, as the county recorded its first heavy frost Nov. 9 and eight days of rain are expected in the forecast beginning Nov. 12, making a daunting combination — officials fear the inclement weather will push social gatherings indoors, where the risk of virus spread is far greater.
While experts have long believed the coronavirus travels through droplets — or the small bits of exhaled liquid that travel through the air before falling to the ground when someone talks, coughs or sneezes — studies are increasingly showing aerosols — the much smaller particles people emit while breathing and talking that can linger in the air for hours — are a primary means of transmission. This makes indoor spaces much riskier, as the virus can hang in the air a long time, especially in rooms with poor circulation.
It's also important to remember that the metrics California uses to create its tiered rankings don't use real-time data. Rather, the state looks at seven-day data sets that trail a week and a half behind the Tuesday tier announcements. That means the state's Nov. 10 determination that Humboldt remains in the minimal risk tier is really based on a week's worth of data that ended Oct. 31. Local numbers have obviously changed rather substantially since then.
As of the week ending Oct. 31, Humboldt County had seen a daily average of two new COVID-19 cases per day with a testing positivity rate of 1 percent. But Humboldt County releases data daily, giving us the chance to look ahead. For the week ending Nov. 7, Humboldt County averaged 3.6 new cases per 100,000 residents with a test positivity rate of 1.8 percent — numbers that would place Humboldt County solidly in the moderate risk tier if they persisted for two consecutive weeks. Through three days of the next data period, the county was averaging 4.7 new cases per 100,000 residents with a test positivity rate of 2.4 percent — numbers that would place the county within the more restrictive substantial risk tier under the state's metric. (It's worth noting that the statewide numbers will spike significantly under the metrics in the coming weeks: While the data from Oct. 31 shows 8.4 new cases per 100,000 in population, the seven-day period ending Nov. 10 would put the state at 20 new cases per 100,000 residents.)
These designations have significant business and economic impacts. Humboldt's current status as a minimal risk county allows its bars to be open and restaurants to offer dine-in services at 50-percent capacity, a potential lifeline when the rain starts. Under the moderate category, those bars would have to close unless they can serve outdoors and restaurants would have to cut back to 25-percent capacity. In the substantial risk category, bars would have to close entirely. School boards also weigh these numbers when mulling whether to return students to campus, as will health officials when deciding whether to approve live performances, larger events and other things. (While live, outdoor performances are currently allowed on a case-by-case basis, Humboldt County has yet to approve one.)
But just as health officials say it is not a secret what is driving local numbers, the means to reverse the current trend is not a secret either. A press release from the county's Joint Information Center earlier this week noted the majority of local cases are "tied to travel and gatherings" and are "scattered throughout the county, rather than originating from one or two larger clusters or outbreaks."
"We're seeing groups of people gather indoors and coming into close contact for longer periods of time," said Deputy Health Officer Josh Ennis in the release. "We've been talking about the confluence of COVID and colder weather for months, and now that time is here. We all have to redouble our prevention efforts to slow transmission, protect the vulnerable and preserve health care capacity."
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.