STUCK IN A MINEFIELD
As of Thursday, the United States stands far and away at the top of the Covid-19 charts.
Not exactly a chart one wants to hit. Certainly not Kasey Kasem’s Top 40!
The total number of Covid-19 cases nationwide sits at approximately 3.4 million, and the virus has caused more than 135,000 deaths.
States are seeing record jumps in case numbers: Florida reported more than 15,000 new cases on Saturday, July 11. California recorded over 11,000 on Tuesday, the highest daily count yet.
And yet, Disney World reopened this week.
The debate surrounding school openings intensified after the President increased pressure to reopen; Florida’s state education board is currently requiring all schools to be open while some local jurisdictions have postponed in-person classes until at least the spring.
On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters that in regard to the current administration’s push to reopen schools, “The science should not stand in the way of this.”
While children are not generally considered at severe risk when it comes to Covid-19, they do stand the chance of developing multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C), which can inflame parts of the body like the heart, blood vessels, kidneys, brain and eyes.
In addition, U.S Immigration and Customs (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security backed off a policy that would have required foreign college students to depart the country if their respective schools do not hold in-person classes. A lawsuit filed by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and supported by countless other schools, resulted in the policy walk-back. Total time elapsed in the hearing: approximately five minutes.
The spike in cases across California lead Governor Gavin Newsom to issue new restrictions on Monday, affecting businesses in all counties. These include closing indoor operations at restaurants, wineries, movie theaters, bowling alleys, and cardrooms. In addition, bars, breweries, etc. must close all operations unless they provide outdoor sit-down meals.
Counties on the State Monitoring list for more than three days must shutdown gyms, places of worship, hair and nails salons, and malls.
Inyo and Mono Counties are currently not on the State Monitoring list.
By Tuesday, businesses has removed all indoor tables and seating, restricting access only to those making orders or using the restrooms. Those with little to no capacity to host patrons outdoors will be takeout/delivery exclusive if they choose to remain open.
Both counties have seen recent upticks in positive cases: Mono County has averaged one new case per day since July 2, while Inyo has added 2-3 new cases each week.
Mono County Administrative Officer Bob Lawton called the changes “manageable but nonetheless significant” during a presentation to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
Public Health Officer Tom Boo elaborated, telling the Supervisors that Mammoth Hospital remains unimpacted by the relative surge and hasn’t seen a Covid-related hospitalization since March. He added that the current percentage of positive tests, 2% as of Thursday, is approximately half the state average, “below thresholds of higher levels of concern.”
Boo referred to the current testing situation, both statewide and in Mono County as “not great”, adding that Mammoth Hospital and Northern Inyo Hospital were experiencing severe shortages of rapid result testing. Both Inyo and Mono counties are relying on tests sent out of the area, pushing turnaround times to nearly a full week.
One exception is the Mono County Free Public testing, which has consistently returned results within 2-3 business days of the test.
Despite the testing issues, “Mono county is doing overall fairly well,” Boo said, “better than other jurisdictions in terms of this individual responsibility mitigation efforts.” He added that complaints to Public Health about mask and social distance compliance haven’t been particularly high.
For a county that’s supposedly done everything right and remains below the thresholds for concern, why is Mono subject to the same limitations as other, more concerning counties, Supervisor John Peters wondered.
“What metrics do we have to meet, exceed, maintain, in order to have an expectation of reopening what was just closed down yesterday?”, Peters asked, adding “I think there’s ways to emphasize local control.”
The short answer: advocate Mono’s unique situation to the state.
The lack of communication with the state has caused frustration for county officials, with CAO Lawton likening the situation to a minefield.
“We don’t know how to go forward, we don’t know how to go backward, we can only watch people blow up around us,” Lawton said.
Supervisor Fred Stump asked Boo about contact tracing and the legal measures that could be undertaken to ensure that people are compliant with the Public Health department. He referenced subpoenas as a strategy in use in New York State.
Boo responded that while the vast majority of contacts are cooperative and willing to help out, there are a few rare instances where people don’t comply or tell the full truth. In that case, Boo said, “We do feel like we need some legal tools available.”
One possible course of action that was referenced throughout the meeting: follow the example set by Inyo County’s Public Health Department earlier this week.
Public Health Officer James Richardson issued a press release that not only mandated wearing face masks in public, but also mandated that businesses “ strictly enforce the face-covering requirements of this order…and shall refuse admissions and service to any person who fails or refuses to wear facial coverings.”
The sticking point came at the end: Inyo aw enforcement is tasked with enforcing compliance with the masking mandate and any violation of the new order “constitutes an immediate threat and menace to public health, constitutes a public nuisance, and is punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both.”
Mono County Sheriff Ingrid Braun explained that her department currently responds to Covid-19 related complaints as opposed to patrolling for violations.
“Deputies have been asked to kindly remind someone that they should be wearing a mask, provide a mask, and gain compliance,” Braun said, noting that deputies will issue citations for more serious criminal violations like trespassing, battery, or disturbing the peace.
At the request of Supervisor Jennifer Kreitz, Boo outlined the process for contact tracing beginning with an individual reporting symptoms. They are presumed positive and asked to quarantine for two weeks; the inability to work, Boo said, is the driving force behind non-cooperative individuals. After receiving a list of recent contacts, Public Health follows up with each by phone and, if they are unable to be reached, visits them in-person. Boo told the Supervisors that one of the groups they are currently tracing is at about 40 people so far.
The presentation concluded with Peters again advocating for a variance in ordinance for the County, adding “I think we’re going to further frustrate the public by not being able to be flexible to adjust based on something that’s tangible.”
“Why was the hammer dropped with no communication?” Peters asked.