As the Journal went to press Jan. 12, the state moved Humboldt County into its most restrictive purple "widespread" risk category, as officials had predicted would happen for more than a week, and the county sat at the precipice of falling under a regional stay-at-home order.
The county's return to purple status means that, beginning Jan. 14, movie theaters, places of worship, gyms and restaurants will have to close all indoor operations, while the county is also placed under a nighttime stay-at-home order that requires people stay home except for essential outings. The county's return to purple has been expected since Humboldt's move from the purple tier to the lesser red — or substantial risk — tier surprised local officials Dec. 29 amid a record-setting month that saw 863 new cases confirmed locally.
In the weeks since, Humboldt County's numbers have continued to escalate, with 377 new cases confirmed through the first 12 days of January and a test-positivity rate of 8.7 percent, up from 7.3 percent in December.
"This move by the state reflects what we had been seeing over the past month with the virus worsening locally," Health Officer Ian Hoffman said in a press release. "This pandemic has hit us all hard, especially families with school-age children, our seniors and the business community. Moving back to the purple tier, while expected, will surely have impacts on everyone. I'd encourage everyone to reach out to their loved ones to safely offer support and to remember local businesses the next time you're shopping. We can get through this pandemic by supporting each other."
The move to the purple tier also comes amid an uptick in regional and local hospitalizations. In Humboldt County, 14 residents were hospitalized as of Jan. 12, including four under intensive care, a nearly three-fold increase over the five hospitalizations locally at the start of the year.
Meanwhile, the Northern California Region — which comprises Humboldt and 10 other counties – is perilously close to dipping below the state's hospital-capacity threshold that would trigger a new host of restrictions. Under the state's framework, any region of the state in which cumulative available hospital intensive care unit capacity drops below 15 percent will fall under a mandatory stay-at-home order that shutters nonessential businesses and orders people to stay home other than for essential outings. The Northern California Region, which as recently as Jan. 8 boasted an available ICU capacity of 35 percent, saw that number dip to 17.7 percent on Jan. 12, leaving it at the precipice of the state's threshold.
Northern California health officers have also warned that the state's 15-percent threshold may be too low, noting that the entire region only has about 120 ICU beds and 85 percent capacity would leave roughly 18 beds available and hospitals vulnerable to becoming overwhelmed.
As of Jan. 12, Humboldt County has confirmed 2,138 COVID-19 cases, with 1,240 of them coming since Dec. 1, and 24 COVID-related deaths through the course of the pandemic. Of those who have tested positive for the virus, 1,413 local residents are considered "recovered" by the county, meaning they are no longer contagious. The county does not track long-term health impacts of COVID-19, but healthcare workers have warned that some previously healthy residents have suffered critical health impacts, including kidney failure, as a result of the disease.
According to the county dashboard on Jan. 12, there were 701 active COVID-19 cases locally.
Nationally, 22.5 million COVID-19 cases had been confirmed as of Jan. 12, including 375,124 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Statewide, 2.7 million people had tested positive for the virus and there have been 29,965 COVID-related deaths as of Jan. 12, according to the California Department of Public Health.
Jan. 12 also saw the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors discuss a draft resolution proposed by First District Supervisor Rex Bohn. Known as the "Healthy Communities Resolution," the proposal arose last year out of a meeting of conservative "north state leaders" and has since been adopted by a handful of counties from Lassen to Orange. The resolution is essentially a statement of opposition to the state's tiered county-by-county approach to COVID-19 restrictions and a push for local control, saying local jurisdictions should be allowed to implement or rescind restrictions by ZIP code as they see fit, while also urging school districts to "safely open all schools as soon as possible ... without further delay."
But the power to issue and implement health orders rests with the state of California and local health officers, so the resolution amounts to little more than a statement of values.
Responding to a reporter's question during a Jan. 11 media availability, Hoffman said he thinks the statewide approach "has value" and the county shouldn't deviate from it. Further, he said based on Humboldt County's COVID-19 data, there should be no loosening of restrictions at this point and he believes the county belongs in the state's purple tier. The health officer also said imposing restrictions by zip code is not something Public Health has considered.
"I think there are logistical concerns, you know, the way that people move about in our community is not only within their ZIP code," he said. "ZIP codes are quite small areas, so that's why we've gone with a countywide approach."
When the matter came before the board Jan. 12, Bohn indicated he'd be willing to withdraw the proposed resolution, saying it had drawn resistance and blowback over the weekend. But Bohn said he'd brought it forward simply wanting to give Public Health more flexibility, to support the local business community and to see local schools back open.
"I just wanted to bring something forward for our kids and our small, locally owned businesses," he said. "This is not political."
Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson said he was "wholeheartedly against this resolution" and that he'd received an "immense amount of negative feedback" on it from his constituents.
"We suffer quite a bit from a toxic individuality to a certain degree and we're seeing that play out in some of our national politics and what we saw play out [Jan. 6] and I found the timing of this to be just terrible from that perspective," Wilson said, prompting Bohn to apologize for the timing, saying he'd brought the resolution up with staff well in advance of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot in Washington, D.C.
Newly seated Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell said she understood the timing of the resolution "was bad," but took the opportunity to voice her support for local control over restrictions, small businesses and getting kids back in schools.
Bohn pulled the item before it could come to a vote.
Local school districts have had the flexibility to open for in-person learning through much of the pandemic but that's now restricted as the county re-enters the state's purple tier. Under purple tier restrictions, schools that have been open for in-person instruction at some point this year can re-open or remain open for on-campus instruction but those that have not yet done so are now prohibited from opening their campuses to students until Humboldt County is moved out of the purple tier.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, meanwhile, has unveiled a plan pushing for the re-opening of the state's K-6 schools this spring, proposing the state spend $2 billion on safety and testing measures to make that happen.
"As a father of four, I know firsthand what parents, educators and pediatricians continue to say: in-person is the best setting to meet not only the learning needs but the mental health and social-emotional needs of kids," Newsom said in a statement. "In the midst of this pandemic, my administration is focused on getting students back in to the classroom in a way that leads with student and teacher health."
Yet with cases surging throughout the state and hospital systems overwhelmed throughout Southern California, it remains to be seen if that will be possible or if Newsom's plan will be approved.
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.