Four months of safety behind closed doors, with no visitors permitted, allowed the Bishop Care Center to remain Covid-19 free while care facilities and retirement homes around the country lost massive numbers of residents to the virus.
That has changed.
On Tuesday, August 11, Inyo County reported that from the period of July 28-August 10, 60 new cases of Covid-19 appeared in the county. 45 of those cases have been tied to the outbreak at Bishop Care Center.
On Wednesday, August 12, the county reported an additional two Covid-19 related deaths, bringing the countywide total to 5.
The latest deaths were not specified as being linked to the Care Center.
Inyo County Deputy Director of Public Health Anna Scott told the Inyo Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that the addition of the new cases moved Inyo’s infection from 50 cases/100,000 people in late July to 332 cases/100,000 people by August 10. The new metric is enough to place the county on California’s County Monitoring List (it hasn’t been placed on the list yet), which will lead to new public health guidelines if the state does add Inyo County to the watch list.
That spike in infections is directly correlated to the outbreak at the Bishop Care Center; Scott told the Supervisors that without factoring in the Care Center cases, the case rate would be 83/100,000 people.
“We won’t know really the full impact of this particular outbreak until we go through the next week and a half or so,” Scott explained. She also expressed concern that the outbreak could spread further beyond the Care Center if not properly contained.
Marilyn Mann, Health and Human Services Director for Inyo County, elaborated and referenced infected staff members as a potential vector.
“We could start seeing their contacts appear with positive cases,” Mann said.
Those with family in the facility want information and answers.
One individual with a family member in the facility told The Sheet that while service had improved, getting any information about the situation has been difficult. They said that it took consistent phone calls to finally get through to an administrator. But questions, like the number of negative tests results needed for a resident to be considered Covid-free, still abound.
When she first heard that Care Center residents had tested positive, Nancy Gutierrez called continually to make sure that her family member, an elderly resident at the facility, was still okay and safe.
On August 4, Gutierrez called to inquire about her relative and was told that they were fine and that if they had tested positive for Covid-19, Gutierrez and her family would have already received a call. Gutierrez says that she was also told that withholding information about a relative’s health would be illegal.
But something didn’t sit right. So Gutierrez and her family went to the Care Center to see their relative through the window in their room.
Their relative reported body aches and feeling exhausted; Gutierrez received a call the next day saying that her relative had tested positive for Covid-19.
Gutierrez’s relative has since been moved to a new room, one without a window. “We haven’t heard of my [relative] for two days,” she told The Sheet on Wednesday. She said that her family had been told that if their relative had a cell phone, they would be able to have conversations. With no way to get their family member a cellphone, that option remains impossible.
In a Facebook post, Gutierrez wrote “Our family feels angered, scared, and we want justice for all those elders now at risk … We do not want to get a call that she has passed without us knowing she had worsened.”
Meanwhile in Mono
As Mono County Administrative Officer Bob Lawton put it, “it was a busy week in Covid-land.”
At Tuesday’s Mono County Board of Supervisors meeting, Lawton introduced a new order by County Public Health Officer Tom Boo that outlined new requirements for lodging operations in Mammoth Lakes. The goal: decrease the number of visitors and increase the “margin of safety.”
The new order requires a drop from 75% capacity to 70% at hotels in the town, more stringent cleaning measures within hotel facilities, mandatory protective equipment for cleaning staff, and a recommended 24-hour buffer period between guests.
Boo explained that the effort is modest in scope and intended to slightly curb visitation without excessive revenue loss for lodging operators.
“If I really feel like things are getting out of control,” Boo said, ”… then I would have to consider more drastic lodging restrictions.”
Board Chair Stacy Corless lauded the new order, stating “an order like this will, I hope be some comfort to the members of the public who see it as a response.” Corless was referring to increased public outcry about visitors this summer; many locals feel the town has been overwhelmed by tourists and that the environment has suffered as a result.
Boo also summarized the county’s mitigation efforts as they pertained to restaurants.
“From the beginning of the local epidemic, people who worked in restaurants have been disproportionately featured among cases,” Boo said, “That continued to be the case as we were looking at the spike in cases we saw in latter part of July.”
He estimated that 65% of the county’s cases were directly related to working in restaurants or coming into contact with restaurant workers.
After implementing an employee testing program, 580 restaurant employees had been tested as of August 11. The positivity rate for those tests was just over 6%.
The emphasis on special guidelines and testing for restaurants has been burdensome. Boo reported that many operators feel that their reputation has been tarnished, that the economic ramifications of closing may be too great to overcome, and that some industry competitors have ignored Covid guidelines and been able to profit.
Alisa Mokler-Harper, owner and operator of the Warming Hut in Mammoth Lakes told the Supervisors that the local restaurant industry as a whole has been frustrated throughout the pandemic.
“We do feel like we’ve been kind of scapegoated,” Mokler-Harper said. “We were requested to follow a bunch of new mandates and then left out to dry.
“We don’t feel supported by our local government officials right now,” she told the Supervisors.
Mokler-Harper put forth a list of requests, compiled at a round table meeting of restaurant owners earlier in the week, that asked for support from local government and asked that those who eschew the rules be held accountable.
She also requested that the county consider allocating funds to restaurants that have lost revenue due to being shutdown by positive Covid test results.
The issue, as Supervisor Fred Stump and CAO Lawton both noted, is resources. Stump argued that the county simply doesn’t have the staffing nor the resources to comb through businesses and determine which are absolutely guilty of health code violations.
“You’re right, Lawton responded, “we are truly constrained by resources. One of the reasons … we started pursuing a complaint-based response is because it allows us to triage and prioritize response.”
Lawton continued: “We’ve really tried to carefully meter our new Cares Act funds and to meter our use of FEMA funds and other revenues … this may be one of those cases where we have to bust open the piggy bank and spend that money now.”
“So much of this crisis we’ve had to be reactive,” Corless said, “We’re all going to be disappointed if we’re having to give back $1 million because we didn’t spend it.”
Stump then circled back to his earlier points about government resources being stretched thin, adding “There’s nothing worse for the government to do than imply that it’s going to provide a service and not provide it.”