As Mono County goes, so too does Inyo it seems.
Inyo County saw a spike of 28 new Covid cases over a three day period between August 1 and August 3, raising the overall county caseload to 86 individuals. Three of those new cases resulted in hospitalizations, two of which are, as of Thursday morning, considered in critical condition.
*Inyo’s death toll was raised to three by 5 p.m. Thursday from one.
More dire is the fact that all but one of these new cases is tied to a single location, the Bishop Care Center, per a press release from Inyo County.
The Care Center has implemented severe infection control measures while the California Department of Public Health reviews the facility’s procedures to ensure the safety of staff and residents.
Mono County Health Officer Tom Boo reported to the Mono Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that he’d heard from James Richardson, Inyo County Public Health Officer, that a party held in Mono ten days prior was considered the “index” of the Bishop outbreak. Boo reported at least one positive tied to the party so far, noting that numerous staff from the Bishop Care Center were in attendance.
Boo expressed a desire to further investigate the party, noting that “it’s totally not prudent to be having parties in the pandemic context.”
The Sheet spoke with Debbie McCormick, whose nephew, Michael Heffron, has been a resident at the facility for over twenty years. McCormick explained that Heffron’s mother, her sister Linda Franklin, had received a call from someone at the Care Center on Saturday night who told her that there had been a confirmed case at the Center.
McCormick told The Sheet that families were having difficulty getting in touch with the Care Center to verify the health of family members within the facility, adding that families haven’t been contacted en masse about the outbreak save for a conference call.
“I don’t believe, given what I know now,” McCormick said, “that they had a plan in place for this.”
The Sheet also spoke with Franklin, who said that the last contact she’d had with her son was Wednesday night, when he called her to say that he was being moved out of his room and that he didn’t know why. The panicked call from Heffron was how Franklin found out that her son, and his roommate, had tested positive for Covid-19.
Franklin said that on the conference call, held earlier this week, the Care Center representative told the families on the line that there were 19 positive tests among residents. The addition of Heffron and his roommate push that number to at least 21, with an additional seven staff members testing positive.
“I don’t blame the Care Center,” Franklin clarified, “They were doing a fantastic job keeping it out of there.” The Center has been closed to visitors since March, with only two opportunities for drive-by visitation on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
Franklin said that she’d been in touch with a health inspector from San Bernardino who was coming up on Thursday to inspect the facility.
“The other people don’t stand a chance [against Covid]”, Franklin told The Sheet, “and I don’t know how much of a chance Mike stands.”
Both sisters had the summation of the situation they’ve experienced so far: “It’s a nightmare”.
Boo issued an updated health order on August 1 that outlaws gatherings of people from different households, regardless of size or location, with exceptions for religious and cultural services as well as political protests.
With the recent outbreak, Inyo County appears on its way to a spot on the State Covid monitoring list, joining the 36 other counties which have seen increased cases and subsequent walkbacks on businesses reopening.
Except: the state is experiencing data issues with its reporting system. Delays in test results and potential duplicate tests have significantly impacted reporting and it is unlikely that Inyo County will be placed on the state watchlist until those issues are resolved.
Mono County continues to experience above average rates of Covid-19, with the preliminary positivity hovering around 10% for all tests. The county has transitioned to using the University of California, San Francisco’s lab for test results and in spite of a glitch over the weekend that delayed results, Boo reported faster testing turnaround times than the county had previously experienced.
For the first time, Mammoth Hospital is at yellow status, an indication that the healthcare system is feeling the effects of the recent spike. Boo reported the change in status on Tuesday, explaining that recent Covid admits and limited ICU capacity combined with additional “normal” admits are making space a bit tight at the hospital. Additionally, the hospitals in Reno that Mammoth typically sends patients to are experiencing a similar surge and cannot accept many more patients at this time.
Boo also expressed doubt about the upcoming school year; parents with children ages pre-K through 6th grade can sign a waiver for their children to attend school in person but positivity rates remain above the threshold for in-person classes.
Testing for restaurant employees remains a priority, even as the majority of restaurants report zero positive cases among their staff, due to the high frequency of interaction with unmasked guests. Boo also reported that the majority of Covid-19 cases in Mono County are concentrated within the Hispanic/Latinx community, an issue that county and Town of Mammoth Lakes officials have consistently struggled to address.
The primary concern, as evidenced by extensive written and in-person public comment, is visitors. As Boo told the supervisors, “It’s a fact of life that pandemics are driven by human travel”, adding, “I don’t know why people insist on vacationing during a pandemic.”
Supervisor Jennifer Kreitz cautioned against taking a harsh stance against tourists. “Telling people to stay home might be the most dangerous thing to do,” she said, “People are looking for outdoor recreation because it’s deemed safe.”
“We have to be careful that we’re not driving people into their homes where they may not be safe [from exposure to working family members],” she added.
In an August 1 health order that outlawed social gatherings, Boo wrote “Throughout California we believe that informal gatherings of friends and relatives who don’t live in the same household are helping to drive this epidemic. Distancing is the single most important thing that we all can do to prevent the spread of infections.”
County residents reported increases incidences of graffiti, littering, and general lack of awareness from guests, many of whom may experiencing the region for the first time.
To that effect, Mammoth Lakes Tourism has caught increased flak from locals upset about the bad behavior, so much so that they have pulled all outward paid messaging about responsible tourism and significantly lowered their presence outside of the area.
As for enforcement, Inyo National Forest district ranger Gordon Martin expressed frustration about the current situation, noting that a lack of staff and directives to work remotely severely limit the Forest Service’s enforcement capacity.
“We’re having trouble approaching people bc they’re not wearing masks,” Martin said, “We get out there and people approach us and it becomes a challenge when they’re not masked up.”