As the Journal went to press April 7, Public Health announced one more Humboldt County resident had tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the local total to an even 50.
While that number represented a sharp spike over two weeks, with 48 of those positive cases coming over the span of 14 days and 29 of them over the previous eight, it also brought some hope that Humboldt County's efforts to slow spread of the virus are bearing fruit. The sole positive test left the county with a three-day average of two cases per day, less than half the average of the prior six days, during which 27 positive tests returned, more than doubling the county's caseload.
In an April 6 presentation to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, Public Health Officer Teresa Frankovich explained how flattening the curve and slowing the rate of infection provide Humboldt County's best chance to weather the coming COVID-19 storm, which is why the county has taken some aggressive measures to halt the virus' spread. Last week county officials modified an existing shelter-in-place-order, declared a local emergency, advised local schools to remain shuttered through the week and on April 5 urged residents to wear facial coverings when in public to prevent asymptomatic carriers from spreading the virus. (A homemade mask pattern can be found at www.northcoastjournal.com.)
Frankovich said the goal is to delay intense local caseloads, potentially leaving the area with a longer period of COVID but keeping it from hitting the "high velocity" of cases that would overwhelm the local healthcare system. (More on capacity issues below.) That would also leave hope, she said, that by the time Humboldt County sees peak infection rates, other areas of the state and country would be emerging from the virus' worst, allowing them to help Humboldt with additional resources, from equipment and healthcare workers to expertise.
News this past week again came fast and furious. Here's our best effort to summarize important stories we've been reporting online for those of you who, you know, have been busy adjusting to sheltering in place. For more on these and other stories, as well as the latest breaking news, keep up with us at www.northcoastjournal.com.
Cleared for Trials
St. Joseph Hospital announced April 6 that it has been cleared to participate in two national clinical trials of the anti-viral drug Remdesivir for treatment of moderate and severe cases of COVID-19. According to a press release, St. Joseph sought accelerated approval for trials in Humboldt because it believes the drug has shown "promise in the treatment of COVID-19." "This is an important opportunity for future patients who present with COVID – 19 at St. Joseph Hospital and meet certain criteria, to have access to Remdesivir, a promising investigational drug," said St. Joseph Health-Humboldt County CEO Roberta Luskin-Hawk, an infectious disease physician with clinical research experience.
The trial St. Joseph Hospital will participate in will see about 1,000 patients nationwide treated with the intravenous drug by next month, but it's unclear how many patients will be local.
Supes Enter New Reality
The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors' special session April 7 looked very different. Supervisors Mike Wilson and Virgina Bass video conferenced in from their homes, while Supervisors Rex Bohn, Estelle Fennell and Steve Madrone sat 6 feet apart with facial coverings, though Fennell's spent much of the meeting down below her chin.
North Coast Rep. Jared Huffman gave updates on Congress' efforts to mitigate the economic fallout caused by the virus and support local agencies. Huffman said he expects Congress to pass another stimulus bill like the $2 trillion CARES Act, which included increased unemployment benefits, one-time payments to most U.S. households and funds for local governments and hospitals. "The demand for this kind of help is beyond anything we could have anticipated," he said, explaining the third "wave" would be an economic recovery bill focused on funding transportation, broadband and green energy infrastructure projects to put people back to work.
The board then heard from county staff, who stressed that while it's important for people to go outside and get some exercise, they need to keep at least 6 feet away from people outside their households. Public Health Director Michele Stevens referenced recent reports of full parking lots at College Cove and Moonstone Beach.
There was discussion about the best ways to protect the local homeless population. Stevens said local programs — like free meals at St. Vincent de Paul and Arcata House Partnership — have implemented screening processes. Additionally, she said the county has leased the Humboldt Inn and begun quarantining homeless people there who are either in an at-risk group or awaiting testing results.
While applauding those efforts, Madrone asked if the county should be looking to do more — whether a designated camping area or a sanctuary parking area — to provide stability, a sanitary environment and some services. Staff questioned whether bringing a fairly decentralized homeless population together could hasten COVID-19 spread.
The board also discussed a possible eviction moratorium to protect local tenants falling behind on rent due to COVID-19 related job losses and economic hardship. While Sheriff William Honsal told the board his office has already announced it will not be enforcing eviction orders through the COVID-19 emergency, some felt simply preventing the last step of forcibly removing someone from their home wasn't enough and the county should take stronger steps to keep people in their housing.
The board voted unanimously to have staff research an ordinance and report back in several weeks.
The board also wrestled with local property taxe payments — which are due April 10 — ultimately deciding to leave the deadline in place and to give Tax Collector John Bartholomew wide discretion in waiving penalties for those unable to pay on time due to COVID-19 related hardships.
The race to increase Humboldt County's capacity to care for the wave of critically ill COVID-19 cases officials fear is coming got a major boost last week, thanks to a ripple effect of generosity.
It began with nearly 100 local women coming together to donate $105,000 to St. Joseph Hospital to cover the purchase of three ventilators, which inspired Humboldt State University to donate four more and two businesses and two local families to make large contributions. All told, St. Joseph Hospital has ordered 12 new ventilators, which are slated to arrive next month. These will double its current capacity of the bedside machines necessary to keep patients alive until they can fight off the virus. (St. Joseph spokesperson Christian Hill said the larger Providence-St. Joseph Health will also "redeploy" ventilators as needed through its 51 hospitals as hotspots arise. Hill said it's ordering additional ventilators through its regular channels and working with FEMA to access the agency's emergency stockpile in the event of a surge.)
Frankvoich said Public Health is working with local hospitals and nursing homes to figure how all can increase bed capacity. At hospitals, she said officials are changing room organization and beds distribution, as well as making plans to "cohort patients" to increase general and intensive care unit capacity.
"We're also looking at what alternate care sites we might develop in order to provide care outside the hospital walls and outside traditional settings," Frankovich said.
As explained in this week's editorial, a case trajectory similar to what Humboldt County saw last week could lead to need far exceeding capacity by early next month, underscoring the need to flatten the curve and slow infection rates through social distancing.
In a press release, Luskin-Hawk said her hospital has an obligation to be prepared for "a surge of patients who develop critical illness due to COVID-19."
"While we hope for the best, we are preparing for our hospitals to face unprecedented demand for critical care services," she said.
North Coast Journal staffers Jennifer Fumiko Cahill, Iridian Casarez, Thadeus Greenson and Kimberly Wear contributed to this report.