MOUNTAIN WARFARE…VERSUS COVID
It’s said that all good things must come to an end. While that end isn’t entirely decided at this point for Mono and Inyo counties’ Covid-19 guidelines, the outlook is decidedly bleak.
Inyo County managed to stay in the Orange tier of state guidelines for the immediate future after worries last week that an increase in cases might cause a change in tier; at the time, the county had experienced a recent spike in cases.
Inyo County has 27 active cases of Covid-19 as of Thursday morning with 94 tests still pending. 23 of those cases are in northern Inyo County with the remaining 4 in the southern part of the county.
A press release issued by Inyo County on Wednesday afternoon indicated that during the October 18-24 timeframe, the county had 13 cases. This decreased Inyo’s case rate to 10.1/100,000, down from the previous week’s rate of 12.4. Smaller counties can remain in the Orange tier if the case rate is 14 or fewer per week. The positivity rate was 4.5%. While both of these numbers keep the county in a less-restrictive tier, officials urge diligence and compliance with guidelines in order to keep things as open as possible.
The same cannot be said for Mono County.
Through late October, Mono County had maintained a consistently low number of positive Covid-19 tests since a large spike in July.
That began to change on October 21, when an outbreak was identified within the county. The source: The Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center north of Bridgeport. Mono County Public Health Officer Tom Boo reported at Tuesday’s Mono County Board of Supervisors meeting that 60 positive cases had been identified on the base as of Monday. Public Health Director Lynda Salcido reported a total of 75 cases at Wednesday’s Mammoth Lakes Tourism meeting.
Boo explained that the county has no public health authority or contact tracing ability at the base; the base administers and sends out its own tests on a routine basis. He did say the outbreak has been traced to an incoming Marine battalion from North Carolina that had seen Covid-19 activity prior to arrival in California. Supervisor John Peters added that prior to the arrival of the battalion, consisting of 1,700 soldiers, the Mountain Warfare Training Center had not had any outbreaks.
“I do not think that the case numbers will be high enough to warrant tier movement,” Boo told the supervisors, “but our percent positivity rate might be high enough.” He noted that if
the case rate is sustained across multiple weeks, that would be enough to move Mono County into the most restrictive state guideline tier.
Under that tier, listed as Purple or Tier 1, many non-essential indoor businesses would be forced to shut down. Restaurants would return to takeout/delivery only, entertainment venues would close entirely, and houses of worship would return to online services.
Although isolated and very much self-contained, any positive tests at the training center count towards Mono County’s totals.
Given the lag time associated with the state’s data review process, a change in tier designation would not come for at least another week.
All this despite the fact that “there’s no evidence right now that what’s happening on the base is extending into the community,” Boo said, “We have not identified increased community transmission related to the base.” With that said, he added, there has been a small uptick in cases around the county unrelated to the base.
Peters, whose district includes the base, explained that he’d been in contact with officials from the state on the matter, including state Health and Human Services director Dr. Mark Ghaly. Peters expressed hope that the situation be defined and adjucated properly, as the base is “not under our control, is confined to an area that does not lend itself to community spread.”
He noted that the state does have parameters for addressing outbreaks at military facilities; if someone has been in the county and training for 14 days and tests positive for Covid-19, that positive result is attributed to the county.
Another complicating aspect of the outbreak: civilians on base, including family members and other “dependents” are not subject to the base’s testing regimen and are tested separately at local health clinics. One thing that is certain is that regardless of how the county is designated, schools will remain open.
*Addendum: North County schools (Coleville and Walker) are returning to distance learning through the Monday after Thanksgiving. This is unrelated to the base and a separate suspicion of a positive school case.
Boo explained that the county would request adjudication on the matter in an attempt to avoid an increase in restrictions on local businesses. That process automatically guarantees another week in the same tier on top of the existing lag time in data evaluation.
In the event that Mono County is set back to the Tier 1, it would take a minimum of three weeks for the county to move into Tier 2 and then an additional three weeks to get back to Tier 3. A minimum six week setback, as supervisors and county officials noted, would be devastating for the local economy.
Peters said San Diego County, home to the much larger Camp Pendleton and Naval Base Coronado, did not have the same issue of military positive test results counting against a county’s totals.
During public comment, T-Bar and June Pie operator Jamie Schectman urged the supervisors to fight to keep the county open after a rough 2020 to date. “It’s absolutely imperative that we take a full court press [in conversations with the state],” he said.
Board Chair Stacy Corless reiterated Schectman’s sentiments during her comments. “
“The impacts of Mono County moving back to purple could de devastating,” she said, “Social and health impacts could be on a scale of maybe worse than what we saw in spring as, as we’re all aware, there’s no federal Covid relief in sight.”
Thursday evening’s Community Covid Conversation was focused on the outbreak at the MWTC, with Lieutenant
Colonel Adrian Arnold and Colonel Daniel Wittnam from the Training Center joining the weekly call along with District 4 Supervisor John Peters.
Col. Wittnam explained that the the battalion currently at the base had seen some positive tests while it was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Marines that were symptomatic were held back while the majority of the battalion proceeded onto the Mountain Warfare Training Center.
Upon arrival, a number became symptomatic while in close proximity during training, resulting a large spike in cases over the three week period from late October to early November.
According to Wittnam, when Marines test positive, they are placed in isolation down the “hill” away from the rest of the battalion and are in some cases placed in one-man tents on the opposite side of Highway 108 from the base.
After the initial positive tests, base leadership opted to go all in, testing the approximately 1,300 Marines remaining in the battalion.
On Wednesday, the base was notified of 66 positive results on top of the existing 79 or so. On Thursday, 90 tests came back positive.
Lt. Col. Arnold added that the battalion currently at the base will be departing within the next 14 days after completing their training, with Covid-positive Marines remaining longer if need be.
Corless and Peters, also on the call explained that they were advocating to the state not to punish Mono County for an isolated and remote outbreak that has not spread beyond the base. Wittnam also expressed his own commitment to ensuring that state officials understand how much the base is and has been isolated from the rest of the county.
Peters added that there is precedent for granting exceptions; other counties have had outbreaks in prison populations and not had those numbers count against the county totals.
Local officials concluded the meeting by reminding listeners that the virus is not going away and that they must continue to take it seriously.
“This virus is not going to take a break for whatever reason,” said Mammoth Hospital Chief Medical Officer Craig Burrows. “If we don’t continue to be mindful of our need to social distance and wash hands, whether you’re a Republican or Democrat or otherwise, it’s going to keep coming.”
LODGED IN A TIGHT SPOT
The Mammoth Lakes Lodging Association was up in arms on Monday morning after Mono County announced that it was considering additional restrictions on lodging operations. Association President John Morris cautioned against turning the meeting into a long-winded series of complaints and urged fellow lodging operators to come up with solid feedback that the county could incorporate into the new order.
The key points of contention for lodging operators: 6 hour minimum gaps between vacancies would be required between guests although 24 hours remains strongly recommended, and the 70% maximum occupancy numbers would remain in place heading into the winter.
Morris explained that he had already asked Mammoth Lakes Town Manager Dan Holler about the reasoning behind the order, and said Holler told him that County Counsel Stacey Simon had requested more consistency for lodging guidelines across the industry.
In addition, Holler reportedly told Morris that while the 24-hour vacancy gap had been generally successful, auditing had revealed evidence of non-compliance by certain lodging operators and that the maximum lodging capacity of 70% had either been met or exceeded according to data.
Said Jason Herbst of Five Star Lodging of the complications related to the restrictions and the forced cancellation of bookings, “It’s going to destroy the reputation of my organization and the reputation of this town.”
Morris noted that even at the busiest points of the summer, Snowcreek had maxed out in the low 60s in terms of capacity percentage. As a result, he questioned why the county continued to stick to the 70% hard line.
Holler explained that the data indicates the town has been at about 68% capacity on average, and noted that there is “still a heavy concern over the potential transmission from the traveling public.”
In regards to worries about enforcing the single household/traveling group policy, Holler explained that enforcement would most likely be voluntary and acknowledged that some operators may not be entirely truthful in keeping with the policy.
Morris and others advocated for the 70% capacity cutoff to be extended to a monthly basis, which would allow for longer stays and more business while keeping visitation relatively low.
Others pushed to keep the vacancy period at 24 hours as reverting to back-to-back bookings could shake up a process that has taken months to perfect in some cases.
Lodging operators also pushed Holler to distinguish between different types of lodging operations, as managing hotels as opposed to rentals or Airbnbs requires an entirely different process.
The meeting concluded with Holler agreeing to take the feedback to Mono County in an attempt to gain more favorable terms for lodging operators.