As this edition of the Journal went to press, Humboldt County was riding a wave of seemingly good news. It had been nearly a week since the last new COVID-19 case on April 15, the county had only announced two new cases since April 7 and Public Health had recently reported that all but two of the 52 local residents diagnosed with COVID-19 had since recovered, meaning they have met the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criteria and were no longer in isolation.
It was in the midst of this wave that the Times-Standard broke the story on April 17 that state a state model was projecting Humboldt County would record 40 COVID-19 deaths before June 1 — a jarring contrast. Humboldt County Public Health Officer Teresa Frankovich has repeatedly declined to answer media inquiries about the numbers of cases and deaths official models projected locally, explaining that the models are based on a variety of assumptions and unknowns (see "Predicting a Pandemic's Path: What Models Can and Can't Do") and vary widely.
"As soon as I have a working number that we have faith in ... we will put that information out there," she said a week ago while declining to directly answer a reporter's question about when the models say the county could expect to see peak infection rates and what that would look like.
But Butte County Public Health Officer Andy Miller, while also cautioning that models are not fortune tellers and are open to wide dispute, recently approached the question differently. In a video posted to social media April 17, Miller pushed one of the state's modeling projections that included data for Humboldt County into public light.
"Even though it's disturbing to think about and talk about, it's out there and should be available," Miller says in the nearly six-minute video (available on the Journal's website), explaining that the modeling is based on a "Johns Hopkins model" and represents the state's "best guess" of what may come. He adds that there are both more optimistic and pessimistic models out there — deeming this one in the middle. "In an effort to be totally transparent and knowing you might see it through another channel, we wanted to explain what the numbers mean, but we're not endorsing it as truth or saying this is the way things will develop here."
As Miller walks the audience through slides specific to Butte County in the video, data for Humboldt County is clearly visible on the screen, indicating the median projections for hospitalizations is 178, with 57 ICU patients and 40 deaths by June 1. To date, Humboldt County has confirmed 52 COVID-19 cases with three hospitalizations and zero deaths, with the rate of positive tests having slowed considerably over the past two weeks as the number of people tested has also declined.
As of April 21, 1,753 Humboldt County residents had been tested for COVID-19 — roughly 1.3 percent of the population — with about one in 34 tests coming back positive for a total of 52 cases. Nationally, about one in five of the roughly 4 million people tested (about 1.2 percent of the population) have returned positive, while the state has seen about one in nine of the 258,8000 samples taken (about 0.7 percent of the population) test positive. So, on a per capita basis, Humboldt County is testing more people and finding a lot fewer COVID-19 cases than the state and national averages. That's good news locally and surely part of the reason Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal announced he'd be re-opening the Sherriff's Office headquarters to the public and urged businesses that had shuttered despite being deemed "essential" and thus allowed to continue operations under the county's shelter-in-place order to re-open.
"Let's start employing our people again," Honsal said, while hinting at additional steps in the future to re-open aspects of the local economy, an urging that the county then quickly announced would be coupled with a mandatory facial covering public health order taking effect April 24. (Read more about that at www.northcoastjournal.com.)
But as modeling indicates, human behavior could change the trajectory of our local numbers quickly and Honsal conceded his worst fear is that people lower their guard, ignore social distancing provisions and we have a resurgence of the virus locally.
And perhaps spurred by Miller — who said the projections he released April 17 were public information and based on the model "endorsed" by the state of California, making it worth showing his local residents in the "interest of transparency" — Frankovich promised as the Journal went to press to discuss various models and their local projections later this week.
But as Miller concluded in his video, projections are just that — informed guesses of what may came, open to hot debate and constant revision. Ultimately, the models are at the whim of the collective people whose fate they predict, which is why Miller closed his video with a simple urging: "Stay in place, maintain your space, cover your face."