On Friday, September 11, 2020, Mendocino County Public Health Officer Dr. Andy Coren and other county officials held a virtual press conference providing an update on the state of COVID-19 in Mendocino County. Redheaded Blackbelt and other local media asked questions about these and other concerns.
[Note: There is a lot of information in this press conference. We will highlight in blue any particularly important responses]
Opening Remarks from CEO Carmel Angelo:
- We knew at some point in time we’d have a convergence of emergencies: fire, a potential public safety, power shutoff, and COVID-19. When the Oak Fire started on September 7, 2020, I declared a local emergency. Today at 5:00 pm, the Board of Supervisors will meet to ratify the local emergency declaration. Additionally, Dr. Coren declared a local health emergency related to the air quality from the wildfire smoke. I would like to assure the public Mendocino County is prepared. We are continually revisiting our preparation for public safety power shutoffs. Mendocino County is in a response mode. We have our Department Operations Center responding to the pandemic and our Emergency Operations Center responding to fires.
Opening remarks from Public Health Officer Dr. Andy Coren
- We here in Mendocino County are currently facing three health threats: COVID-19, the social and mental health stresses of a prolonged shelter-in-place, and heat/smoke/fires have reduced air quality tremendously. For a couple of days this week, Willits had the worst air quality on Earth. We are working hard with the state to relieve these issues and are open to public input to solve these problems.
- We are currently in the ‘Purple-Wide Spread’ tier in the tiered recovery pattern the state has laid out. This is based on statistics from one week ago. The seven-day average is 9.86, and our percent positivity rate is 3.16. Our doubling time is creeping up, but we are facing 778 cases. We have 69 people in isolation, up from 64 one week ago. At this point in the hospital, we have one in the hospital, three are in ICUs, one of those ICU patients is in Mendocino County, one is in San Francisco, and one is in Kentfield. Total deaths in our county are still 17, 5 of them are Latino. You’ll notice a bump from Labor Day that will increase over the next week to two weeks. The evacuations and sheltering from the fires will have increased transmission making numbers climb. It’s important to understand these numbers get multiplied by an adjusted factor that is related to the number of tests we do in our county. Our tier level can be positively influenced if we conduct more tests. We want to encourage people to test because the test results are coming out in 2-3 days now, and we also uncover asymptomatic/presymptomatic people. It pays to get tested, and if we find these cases, we can contain that group of people exposed to infection. There is still a significant disparity between the caucasian and Latino populations. We are trying to do more education with visual aids with our partners. The California Department of Public Health is working on tracking our efforts to reduce the racial/cultural disparities. Gatherings are still a big issue. The unauthorized parties are still out of control. Remember, protecting your friends and family depends on staying away from those parties. I would also like to remind the community the census is over in a few weeks, and it is vital we complete it for funding and resources.
- North of Willits, the 101 was closed, and it has since opened. Parts of Willits, in particular, Brooktrails was evacuated and now being repopulated. There were also evacuations in Humboldt and Trinity counties, and evacuees traveled through Mendocino County when they fled. In response, we set up two shelters in Willits that are now closed, and we also opened one in Covelo with currently four people in the shelter. It’s important to remember that even though you’re going in a congregate setting when you’re going to a shelter, known individuals on quarantine/isolation are housed in a separate shelter in Ukiah, and social distancing/masking/PPEs are utilized at the shelters. We’re also assisting tribes as they set up shelters.
- We’re going through some terrible stresses in Mendocino County, and the shelter-in-place orders have made people very anxious and frustrated. Today is 9/11. Nineteen years ago, we lost 3,000 lives in New York City. COVID lost us 23,000 lives in New York. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq cost 10,000 American lives. COVID has already cost us 200,000 American lives. This is a war against a virus. Our weapons at this point are six feet of distance, soap, and masks. We’re all suffering to defend each other. Masking, distance, and hygiene are patriotic. Sheriff Kendall said we are stronger together, and I want to add that we need to mask up Mendocino.
Around 16 Minutes
Behavioral Health Director Dr. Jenine Miller
- Behavioral Health is still providing services throughout Mendocino County, specifically mental health and substance use disorder treatment services via online, telephone, and limited face to face services. Mendocino County’s Mental Health Service offers a “Warm Line,” a non-crisis call line for residents who need help. Residents can call 707-472-2311 & 1-833-955-2510 to just talk with someone, ask questions, or express a need. The warmline is available Monday through Saturday from 7:30 am-6:00 pm, and translation services are also available. The State of California is also offering a peer-run warmline at 1-855-845-7412 for all California residents. Behavioral Health just started offering online support groups on various topics for free via a Zoom platform in both English and Spanish.
- It is normal to feel stressed during a crisis. We wanted to provide some information on recognizing how stress could impact you and manage that stress. Some signs include fear and worry about our health, jobs, finances, and loved ones, change in our sleep or eating patterns, difficulty sleeping or concentrating, headaches, grinding or clenching jaws, feeling tired, having muscle tension in the shoulders or face, and an increase in tobacco, alcohol or substance abuse. Some signs of stress in children include excessive crying or irritability, returning to behaviors they once grew out of, excessive worry or sadness, unhealthy eating or sleeping habits, irritability and acting out behaviors, poor school performance, difficulties with attention and concentration, and loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed. Some tips on how to manage that stress: making time to unwind by doing activities you enjoy, connecting with others by phone, text, online platforms, taking a break from the news, taking deep breaths, stretching, meditation, exercise, getting plenty of sleep, avoid excessive alcohol or drug use, listening to music, spending some time in nature, spend time with pets, and do some brainpower breaks like puzzles or sudoku. Some tips regarding children: communicate with them about COVID and reassure them they are safe, let them know it is okay to be upset, create a schedule for learning activities and fun, spending time with your child in meaningful ways.
Around 21 minutes
Air Pollution Control/Executive Office Barbara Moed
- The nearby August Complex fire is now listed as the largest wildfire in California history and continues to produce significant dense smoke. Due to these fires and stagnant meteorology, we can expect smoke and haze to continue for the next few days. The extended forecast offers some relief in the middle of next week with higher humidity and smoke dispersion. Currently, smoke from the surrounding wildfires remains elevated over the county. However, due to fluctuating wind directions and a high-pressure ridge over California, the smoke aloft may fall to the surface bringing “Very Unhealthy” to “Hazardous” air to the area. Currently, air monitors show particulate matter concentrations in the “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” to “Unhealthy” range for most parts of the County and “Very Unhealthy” to “Hazardous” to Willits and its surrounding area. Inland communities may experience episodes of “Very Unhealthy” air quality. Degraded air quality has now reached the coastal areas, which may experience episodes of “Unhealthy” air. “Good” air quality could return by the middle of next week for the coast. Meteorological conditions are forecast to remain more of the same. Expect smoke impacts to continue in Mendocino County. Extreme fire weather conditions with persistent high pressure may bring “Very Unhealthy” air and smoke accumulation to valley areas. Consecutive days of warm, dry air have increased fire activities and fires popping back up. Therefore, while surrounding wildfires are active, expect unpredictable smoke impacts to air quality followed by multiple periods of some relief through the next few days.
- Smoke in heavy concentrations can cause eye and throat irritation, coughing, and difficulty breathing. Even healthy adults can be affected by smoke. When air quality conditions are “Unhealthy,,” everyone should limit prolonged or heavy exertion activities outdoors. Cloth facial coverings that are used to slow the spread of COVID-19 offer little protection against wildfire smoke. They do not catch small harmful particles in smoke that can harm your health. Therefore, we recommend following these general precautions to protect your health during a smoke event:
- Minimize or stop outdoor activities, especially exercise.
- Stay indoors with windows and doors closed as much as possible.
- Do not run fans that bring smoky outdoor air inside – examples include swamp coolers, whole-house fans, and fresh air ventilation systems.
- Run your air-conditioner only if it does not bring smoke in from the outdoors. Change the standard air conditioner filter to a medium or high-efficiency filter. If available, use the “recirculate” or “recycle” setting on the unit.
- Do not smoke, fry food, or do other things that will create indoor air pollution.
- If you have lung disease (including asthma) or heart disease, closely monitor your health and contact your doctor if you have symptoms that worsen.
- I’d like to recommend how to establish a “clean air room” in hopes to filter out particulate matter often associated with wildfire smoke: Pick a HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) purifier to reduce particulate matter indoors by 90 percent. These can be purchased at hardware stores or online retailers. You can also make your own air purifier: a 20×20 MERV-rated air filter — like what you would use for your HVAC system — to the back of a 20”x 20” box fan for about $40,00
- You should also work to minimize indoor air pollution sources to optimize indoor air quality by following these tips: Do not smoke or burn firewood, candles, or incense in the house and Use your range hood while cooking, especially when using a gas stove.
Around 31 minutes
MendoFever asks: This week’s modification of the shelter in place orders allows weddings as long as the guests adheres to social distancing. Humboldt County Public Health announced this week a 50 person gathering in Southern Humboldt resulted in 22 cases of COVID. What can you tell the Mendocino County Public about the collaboration being done with local venues for cultural and religious events to provide guidance and ensure best practices?
- Dr. Coren says: We did permit weddings and other cultural events outside of churches, but they are still outside. The six-foot distance must be maintained, and we’re still not allowing chanting and singing. The other thing we’ve done this week is to ask people who are having gatherings to keep a list of people who come and phone numbers to assist in contact tracing if necessary. When you are at these events, stay six feet apart, wear masks, practice good hygiene.
- Sarah Dukett says: Just to remind the public, the businesses in our community, including the venues, must self certify.
Around 33 minutes
MendoFever asks: There have been reports on the national level of a vaccine’s potential by the end of 2020, maybe sooner. First, what are your reactions to this timeline? Is this an accelerated timeline? Second, what distribution mechanisms has Mendocino County considered as a vaccine’s potential is on the horizon?
- Dr. Coren says: We are looking at distribution from how we have done influenza vaccines. Having a safe and effective vaccine before January 2021, let alone before the election, is very unlikely. AstraZeneca just stopped one of their trials because there was a severe reaction to a patient who used the vaccine. When that kind of thing happens, many examinations have to go on to make sure these vaccines are safe to administer. This is the problem with vaccines: they are given to people who don’t have diseases. We don’t want to make them sick. We don’t know what vaccine is effective. The most effective vaccines are 90-95% effective. The less effective ones may be as little as 50%. We don’t want to cause anyone harm. There are a lot of interests and forces at work to promote the early vaccine. From a scientific point of view, it is doubtful. The United States is investing massive amounts of money to be able to massively distribute this vaccine once it’s safe, but we need to assure it’s safe. Distribution would be a huge undertaking. Our best defense against COVID is social distancing, the mask, and hygiene.
Around 36 minutes
KZYX’s Sara Reith asks: Can you talk about the long term effects of wildfire smoke. What types of symptoms should residents look out for?
- Dr. Coren says: These types of fumes and particulates will set off people with asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, and heart disease. Hydrocarbons in the air from wildfires and their effects are not yet understood, so it is best to stay away. The long term effects of smoke in the air can worsen emphysema, needing oxygen, and potential hospitalization.
Followup from Sara Reith: I’m just wondering if a few months or years down the line of people or kids that exposed to this type of air quality
- Dr. Coren says: The long term implications for COVID can be cardiac, neurological, pulmonary, and other undiscovered. I was reading about a defect with the heart muscle that COVID causes,, leading to congestive heart failure. The issue with shelter in place and having schools closed, we seriously worry about what that does to children at developmental ages. They need to learn behavioral controls, playing nicely with others, and they need to read. I cannot tell you what the long term effects of smoke would be beyond emphysema and bronchitis.
Around 39 minutes
KZYX’s Sara Reith asks: What can you tell us about the Mendocino County resident who passed away at an out-of-county facility? Have other residents passed away in out-of-county facilities?
- Dr. Coren says: Certainly, some patients have gotten sick enough in Mendocino County to refer them to a higher level of care, such as the University of California, San Francisco. In the case of the Mendocino County resident who passed away this week who was mistakenly placed on the dashboard, this person was in long term care for other reasons, got sick in those facilities, and then passed away. Their permanent residence was listed as Mendocino County. They didn’t acquire the disease in our community and didn’t pass away in Mendocino County.
Around 42 minutes
Independent Coast Observer’s Susan Wolbarst asks: Can you clarify the circumstances associated with this death mistakenly placed on the county’s dashboard?
- Dr. Coren says: That individual passed away in an out-of-county facility after acquiring the disease out of county and was still listed as a permanent Mendocino County resident.
Around 43 minutes
Independent Coast Observer’s Susan Wolbarst asks: What would you like to say about the role of gatherings in the continued spread of COVID in Mendocino County? Are these taking place in Ukiah and mainly of the Hispanic community? Are they mostly people between the ages of 19-49?
- Dr. Coren says: Gatherings are a significant cause of COVID spread in the community. They are unauthorized and dangerous. Participants are not maintaining social distance, wearing masks, and not practicing good hygiene. I can understand; we’ve been separated so long. There were gatherings on the coast of hundreds of people, and this germ has free reign in those circumstances. The concern is participants in those parties will leave and carry the virus to others in the community. I do not think we should attribute the rise in cases to the Latino community. Anglos are doing this. The larger parties in the community are not just the Latino community. I do not yet know why the Latino community is suffering more. I do know there are cultural differences we’re trying to understand. We do not want to be paternalistic or accusatory. A great deal of Latinos are agricultural workers where they work in a congregate setting. I cannot tell you all of the reasons for the disparity,, but we’re trying to understand it and handle it.
Around 48 minutes
Mendocino Voice’s Adrian Baumann asks: Do you have any numbers associated with the number of gatherings?
- Dr. Coren says: I cannot tell you. I do not have that data on hand. I do know of one gathering that supposedly had 1,000-3,000 people. The geographic spread of Mendocino County makes it difficult for enforcement personnel to get to the gatherings before they dissipated.
Followup from Adrian Baumann: What other details can you provide regarding this large gathering? Were fines issued?
- CEO Angelo says: I do not have any more details about that.
Around 50 minutes
Mendocino Voice’s Adrian Baumann asks: I’m wondering about your choice to use the highly militaristic language associated with COVID. You called COVID a war; clearly, it’s not a war. I’m wondering what value you see in using that sort of language when describing efforts against a virus.
- Dr. Coren says: With the pandemic restrictions, there is a lot of politicizing of the ordinances and effort to lay blame. People in the community are suffering,, and officials are trying to safely chart a path to get COVID under control. The reason I likened it to war is the fact we’ve lost 200,000 people from the virus, and we all have to do our part to stop the virus. Masking, social distancing, closing businesses down are all sacrifices we’re making for the greater good.
The press conference then addressed questions from social media viewers.
Around 53 minutes
Social Media Question: Do you have an estimate as to when Mendocino County will go down in tier on the state’s reopening tiers?
- Dr. Coren says: My realistic estimate is within three weeks. Testing could change that timeline, and there could be some changes in the state’s reopening plan. The state’s plan has been developed to reopen slowly so counties can see the effects of each stage of reopening. I don’t think we will step away from this tiered program soon because there is data to gather. What I’d like to see is make this tier more tolerable.
Around 55 minutes
Social Media Question: Can you talk about the possibility of gyms reopening? What tier allows gyms to reopen?
- Dr. Coren says: Gyms are allowed to reopen in Tier 2, the next level. Gyms would be allowed to reopen with a 10% capacity. The tiers open industries slowly so we can see the effect of the reopening. This tiered program is very restrictive, but its intent is to let us reopen safely and gradually.
Around 58 minutes
Social Media Question: Can you explain community spread and why it has gone up so drastically?
- Dr. Coren says: This community spread could be associated with the unauthorized gatherings. It is unknown at this point.
- DOC Manager Kelsey Rivera: I would like to add that one of the reasons we’re seeing community spread increase on the data tracker is streamlining the data collection process. We’ve been able to focus on data that we were unable to finalize. Several cases are “under investigation,” and we have increased the bandwidth to process those cases and pinpoint their origin.