Shortly before the Journal went to press Nov. 23, Humboldt County Public Health reported it had confirmed 56 new COVID-19 cases since Nov. 20 — obliterating the single-day reporting record and continuing a dramatic case surge that saw 214 cases confirmed through the first 23 days of November after 59 in October.
Throughout the week ending Nov. 20, as a single-week record 71 new COVID-19 cases were confirmed, Humboldt County Health Officer Teresa Frankovich increasingly rang alarm bells and recommended local schools shift to distance learning for the two weeks following Thanksgiving in anticipation of a continued surge in infections.
"I want to make it very clear that I am also concerned," Frankovich said in a Nov. 20 media availability, adding she expects the surge in case activity to continue for at least a couple more weeks and that it was "very likely" to move the county into the state's most restrictive "widespread" purple risk tier of regulations. "When you look at our local case counts, we've more than tripled those very recently and acceleration at this pace is exactly the thing we've been trying to avoid throughout."
California moved Humboldt County from the state's lowest risk tier — "minimal" or yellow — to "substantial," or red, Nov. 16, skipping over the "moderate" orange tier entirely. And that was before the county went on to confirm more cases that week than it saw in the entirety of October.
The state of California largely relies on two metrics to determine where a county falls in its tier system: the percentage of COVID-19 tests administered that come back positive over a seven-day period and the average number of new positive cases confirmed per 100,000 in population daily over the course of a week. Both have spiked locally over the course of the last month. The population-adjusted daily average of new cases went from less than one in the last week of October to 7.7 for the week ending Nov. 20, which is high enough to push Humboldt County into the state's purple "widespread" tier. The test-positivity rate, meanwhile, had gone from 0.6 percent in the last week of October to 3.5 percent the week ending Nov. 20 — indicating a significant spike in virus activity in the community.
On Nov. 23, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state would be updating its risk tiers Nov. 24, with numerous counties expected to be moved into more restrictive groups, though he didn't specify which. (Check www.northcoastjournal.com for the latest on Humboldt County's status and restrictions.) As the Journal went to press Nov. 23, county officials indicated they expected Humboldt would be moved into the purple "widespread" tier the following day, forcing movie theaters, places of worship, gyms and restaurants to cease all indoor operations, with a state shelter-in-place curfew order imposed nightly from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.
"The virus is spreading at a pace we haven't seen since the start of the pandemic and the next several days and weeks will be critical to stop the surge," Newsom said in a press release. "We are sounding the alarm."
Frankovich has repeatedly said it's social gatherings between households and travel that have driven the rate of spread locally. Now, she says, colder weather seems to be pushing more social gatherings indoors, which is much riskier.
"Those drivers are getting us in trouble — there's no doubt about it," she said.
And with the Thanksgiving holiday approaching, Frankovich said it was crucially important residents refrain from having dinners or get-togethers with anyone with whom they do not live.
"I'm asking everyone to really join on board and stop the gathering," she said. "We have to stop the gathering or we are not going to see this slow."
The ripple effects of the elevated case counts were starting to become apparent as the Journal went to press. According to a state database, Humboldt County had four confirmed COVID-19 patients hospitalized locally, with another patient suspected to have COVID-19. Fortuna Union High School, meanwhile, announced that two of its students have tested positive for the disease, prompting it to quarantine other groups of students, while Ridgewood Elementary in Cutten also informed parents that it had put a classroom pod in quarantine following a COIVD-19 exposure, according to a report in the Lost Coast Outpost. In Arcata, restaurants Campground, Wildflower and Salt Fish House all announced they were closing temporarily after staff members tested positive or were exposed to COVID-19. Then on Nov. 23, Humboldt Bay Fire announced that two of its firefighters had tested positive for COVID-19.
In another indication of the state of her alarm, Frankovich penned a Nov. 17 letter to all county school districts, a day after the Fortuna Union High School District board had voted to stay the course on having students on campus for in-person instruction. Long a proponent of having students on campus where safe, Frankovich urged local districts to take a break.
"Considering the conditions across the country, state and increasingly our own county, there are significant concerns regarding increasing transmission after the Thanksgiving holiday," she wrote. "Humboldt County Public Health remains supportive of schools continuing in-person education in the red tier. However, travel and gatherings are currently an enormous driver of local cases. At this time, Humboldt County Public Health is strongly recommending that schools move to distance learning for the 14-day period following the Thanksgiving holiday. Although schools have done a remarkable job of implementing preventative measures to promote safety in on-site education, we anticipate a marked increase in local infections due to travel and gatherings occurring around Thanksgiving. This would threaten rapid identification and containment of cases, leading to increased transmission in the school setting."
In her Nov. 20 media availability, Frankovich indicated the coming week would be critical for Humboldt County's trajectory in navigating COVID-19. The health officer pleaded with local residents who do test positive for the virus to be fully open and honest with county contact investigators, who were spread thin with the surge in cases and are vitally important to efforts to quickly identify and contain case clusters before they spread further into the community.
But mostly, Frankovich urged residents to refrain from travel and gathering, and if they must get together with people outside their household for the holiday, she said it was imperative they do so outdoors and distanced.
"There really is not a safe way to have a gathering around a table, eating with masks off indoors — there isn't. There just isn't," she said. "Being outdoors if you're going to be with others is critically important."
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.