Earlier this week, Mono County was assigned to Tier 2 (Red) within the California Blueprint for a safer economy. The reassignment (a Covid danger designation) was one of many among California counties as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to spike throughout the state. When the dust settled, 41 counties had been placed into the most restrictive tier, Tier 1 (Purple), 11 were in Tier 2, 4 including Inyo County remain in Tier 3 (orange) and two, Alpine County and Mariposa County are in Tier 4 (Yellow).
Mono County’s re-designation was the result of a relatively steep increase in cases throughout the county over the past few weeks. On the first of the month, total cases were at 189; by the 18th, the total was 234. County public health officials had expressed concern in recent weeks over the increased new caseload, which doubled with each passing week.
This increase is independent of the outbreak at the Mountain Warfare Training Center north of Bridgeport, where a total of 259 positive cases have been reported. Mono County filed an adjudication request to the state in an attempt to keep the Training Center’s numbers separate from the county’s as the incident at MWTC has remained isolated to that location.
The tier reshuffling comes as the nation grapples with widespread increases in cases, hospitalizations and deaths. On Wednesday, November 18, Johns Hopkins University reported that overall a quarter of a million citizens had died as a result of the pandemic, surpassing a grim benchmark estimated by White House Coronavirus Taskforce leader Dr. Anthony Fauci back in March.
Moving to the Red Tier has consequences for local business: indoor capacity for restaurants, movie theaters, and places of worship will be limited to 25%, while gyms and fitness centers will operate at 10% capacity.
On Tuesday, the Mono County Board of Supervisors held a joint meeting with Mammoth Lakes Town Council to discuss the re-classification, the impacts it would have on the county, and the path forward. The meeting had previously been scheduled as an opportunity to hear an incident report from Emergency Operations Center representative and Mammoth Lakes Fire Chief Frank Frievalt.
Public Health Officer Tom Boo opened the discussion by telling the assembled officials that the upward trend of Covid-19 cases in Mono County follows state and nationwide trends. Hospitals around the state and region, he explained, are being impacted by an
increase in serious cases and that while they are still by and large functioning, there is “concern to maintain the capacity and function of California hospital systems.” He added that the Reno-area hospitals, frequently used by Mammoth Hospital and Northern Inyo Hospital for transfers, are nearing crisis-level capacity and may not have space for much longer.
Locally, the new outbreak has had its largest presence in Mammoth Lakes, home to about half of the county’s population. But, Boo told the officials, there has been increased transmission in other areas of the county as well. The overall positivity rate (amount of positive tests out of the overall tests conducted) for the period that the state looked at in determining the move to the Red Tier was over 5%. If that number goes up to and stays at 8%, the county will most likely end up in Tier 1.
That change could happen as early as next week. Boo explained that the state has pulled its “emergency brake,” a statute built into its guidelines that allows for reduced lag time in determining a county’s tier level. “There is no longer anything that we can really count on as far as what period they’re going to be looking at or how often they’re going to be making new tier assignments,” Boo said.
Two key areas are not necessarily affected by the emergency brake: schools, which may remain open even in the most restrictive tier, and the ski industry, for which the state has yet to create any guidance.
Boo said that the mountain’s enforcement of masking and social distancing policies had been rigorous to date, with one guest evicted and stripped of their pass and an employee fired for not cooperating with MMSA’s guidelines.
Locally, the drivers of the increase in disease are not the much maligned tourists; Boo explained that it has been locals traveling out of the area and returning infected, along with a disregard for social distancing that has created this local outbreak.
“Travel is really risky right now,” Boo said, “Travel increases the spread of disease. We see it constantly … the state and I are really asking people to think two or three times about traveling out of the region for Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
“We ask people to think about the community, protecting others,” he continued. Boo stressed the danger of gathering indoors as it is “probably 20 times riskier if you’re in proximity to someone with Covid … we see that all the time, people are getting infected from their relatives.”
Mono County must remain in the red tier for three weeks without any uptick that could push the numbers into purple tier range before returning to the less restrictive orange tier. If cases continue to increase and the county is upgraded in status again, most businesses will be restricted to outdoor-only operation, if they are allowed to operate in-person at all.
In the midst of the recent outbreak, public outrage has been directed at state-level elected officials who have flouted laws which apparently only apply to others. Members of the state legislature, including Frank Bigelow, who represents Mono County, and Andreas Borgeas, who represents Inyo and Mono counties in the state senate, flew to Maui to attend a conference that brings together politicians and corporate sponsors for what the San Francisco Chronicle described as “five days of policy discussions and schmoozing.”
In addition, Governor Gavin Newsom attended a birthday party at the French Laundry restaurant over the weekend, which featured a relatively large number of people, none of whom appeared to wear masks in photos circulated by news outlets.
Supervisor Jennifer Kreitz referenced both incidents during her time to ask questions as sources of frustration from constituents who see this as an example of hypocrisy from elected officials.
Kreitz also pushed for a wider discussion on community support programs, such as food banks and clothing drives, that may become necessary to prop up those who have lost jobs due to the increased cutbacks in service.
“As food gets ramped back down and face-to-face service get ramped back down, we’re going to have more families in need,” she said, “and I’m not sure where the EOC is on planning with this. We’re not in summer any more, people need to heat their homes, and that adds another level of cost.”
Mono Supervisors Board Chair Stacy Corless asked Public Health Director Bryan Wheeler about the possibility of rapidly moving into the purple tier, to which he responded, “That is definitely a real possibility if you look at the projection of the last 4 weeks … that is a possibility and we’re hoping to avoid that.”
In other news, Moderna announced a Covid-19 vaccine that is 94% effective, the second pharmaceutical company to put forth a tested vaccine. Pfizer also announced updated effectiveness of their vaccine, now clocking at 95%. Authorities estimate in the range of 40 million vaccine doses available by the end of the year, designated for frontline workers and at-risk individuals. Given the two-step nature of this vaccine, that would be enough to vaccinate 20 million people natiowide.