Facing a shortage of contact tracers and limited testing resources, state and local health officials are scrambling to prioritize vulnerable Californians and curtail the spread of the coronavirus.
As of Tuesday, more than 336,000 Californians have been infected by the virus, which has killed 7,087 in the state thus far.
The rolling average positivity rate of COVID-19 tests in California slightly dipped Monday: Over the last 14 days, about 7.1 percent of all tests conducted came back positive, as opposed to 7.4 percent over the weekend.
But a growing number of Californians are requiring hospitalization, or in some cases intensive care, which has alarmed state and local health officials in recent days. There are more than 6,700 Californians infected with the virus in hospital beds, based on state data reported Tuesday. About 28 percent of hospitalized patients are in intensive care.
To slow the spread, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Monday the immediate statewide closure of all indoor business at restaurants, wineries, theaters, zoos, museums, card rooms, bars and family entertainment centers.
In addition, Newsom has ordered shopping malls, gyms, indoor church worship, nail salons and barber shops to shut down in 32 counties representing about 80 percent of Californians. Those counties have been on the state’s monitoring list for troubling coronavirus trends for three or more days.
California church leaders question indoor worship ban
As California Gov. Gavin Newsom once again bars houses of worship in much of the state from conducting indoor religious services, some Christian leaders are critical of the governor’s decision.
The order restricting indoor worship services applies to any county on the state’s COVID-19 monitoring list. On Monday, Newsom said that encompasses 80 percent of Californians.
Jonathan Keller, president of the conservative California Family Council, said Newsom’s order shows that the governor “trusts big box stores like Costco and Target more than churches and synagogues.”
“Coupled with last week’s ban on singing during worship services, people of faith are increasingly alarmed by Sacramento’s disregard of their constitutional rights. We have to ask ourselves: where do we draw the line?” Keller said in a statement.
Pastor Greg Fairrington at Destiny Christian Church in Rocklin said he would still hold indoor service on Sunday, despite the new order, and urged residents in the area to attend.
“I believe my mandate as a pastor is to obey the word of God and worship is a part of what we do as a church,” he said in a defiant video message posted on Facebook Monday.
California overhauls COVID-19 testing priorities
The state overhauled its testing strategy Tuesday, now placing people in hospitals with COVID-19 symptoms or in close contact with an infected individual as the first priority for testing.
The new guidelines could make it harder for people without COVID-19 symptoms to receive a test if they’re simply concerned about a possible infection.
Under new California guidelines, medical workers — including staff at group living facilities like homeless shelters, nursing homes and jails — will be in the next tier of priority. Teachers, service workers and food industry workers are in the third tier, while everyone else is in the fourth, according to the guidelines.
The new priority system comes as the state experiences a dramatic rise in coronavirus cases and the state runs low on testing supplies, causing bottlenecks for testing and forcing people to wait longer for results, Ghaly said.
The tiers will guide not only who is prioritized for testing, but also whose test results are processed fastest by labs, Ghaly said.
Earlier this month, the Department of Public Health said commercial labs were “becoming overwhelmed with large volumes of specimens, slowing down processing timelines” across the country. As a result, some people who suspected they had COVID-19 were waiting more than a week for results.
Public health officials look to free up state-run testing sites
In light of high test costs and an explosion in new COVID-19 cases, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration will now encourage people to seek coronavirus testing at doctor’s offices and clinics.
The goal is to free up state-funded testing sites for Californians who are harder to reach through the traditional medical system, California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said Tuesday.
State and local health officials had previously encouraged all Californians to get free testing at state-funded sites in their communities, such as the one at Cal Expo in Sacramento.
State officials also hope to shift more of the testing costs to private insurers. High costs have emerged as a major concern for the state as the pandemic has progressed and the state’s economy has plunged into a recession. The state currently is paying a little over $100 per test on average, Ghaly said.
“New regulations will require health plans to pay for the costs of tests in most instances,” said Lourdes Castro Ramírez, Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency secretary, on Tuesday.
California lacks COVID-19 contact tracers
California communities are scrambling to track down people exposed to the coronavirus after the state let many accelerate reopening without meeting minimum standards for contact tracers, a review of county data shows.
Even some counties that did meet the state’s staffing threshold at the outset have been overwhelmed. Fresno County, for example, had enough staff when it filed its reopening documents in May. But the number of positive cases in the county has grown by an average of 280 a day over the past two weeks, outstripping capacity.
“We don’t have enough personnel at this time,” interim health officer Dr. Rais Vohra said last week. “The numbers have just kind of grown by such degrees that it’s really hard for us to keep up.”
In some areas, tracers face challenges beyond limited capacity. In Yuba and Sutter counties, some people they call will yell, hang up or simply decline to participate. Sometimes tracers can’t reach a contact at all. Infected people don’t always remember who they were with or where they have been.
As a result, the counties are failing to get information on about 40 percent of cases.
California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly acknowledged Tuesday that some counties are now concentrating their efforts on the more serious outbreaks rather than tracking the contacts of each infected person.
“We did not build the current contact tracing program on this level of transmission,” he said.
Folsom school district to start fall with distance learning only
The Folsom Cordova Unified School District will begin the 2020-21 school year with a distance learning-only plan.
The decision, which came during a special board meeting Tuesday night, caught dozens of parents who tuned in online by surprise.
The school board voted 4-1 to have all 20,000 students in the district start the school year online.
Transitional schedules, or hybrid models where students will return two to four days a week in morning or afternoon cohorts, will be implemented as soon as it is deemed safe to return to campus.
Sacramento City Unified School District has announced plans to allow some classroom instruction to begin by Sept. 3. Natomas Unified School District is delaying the start of the school year by two weeks to Aug. 27, but will allow some in-person learning in the fall as well.
Latest Sacramento-area numbers: 139 dead, 9,300 infected
The six-county region of Sacramento, El Dorado, Placer, Yolo, Sutter and Yuba has reported 9,336 people infected by the coronavirus as of Wednesday morning. The virus has killed a total of 139 in the region.
Sacramento County reports 6,174 confirmed coronavirus infections since the pandemic started, of which 92 people have died, according to the county’s data dashboard updated Wednesday morning.
On Wednesday morning, the county reported 236 new cases of the virus. Another individual was reported hospitalized Tuesday, according to state data, bringing the total number of COVID-19 patients in Sacramento County hospital beds to 176. Of those, 61 are in intensive care.
The city of Sacramento, which accounts for about one-third of the county’s roughly 1.5 million residents, has now surpassed 3,880 cases and has had 50 residents die.
Placer County reported 37 new cases Tuesday morning, bringing the total number of infections there to 1,151. Five more people are now hospitalized from the virus, with 45 residents now in hospital beds and 10 in intensive care. Eleven people have died of COVID-19 in Placer County thus far. The vast majority of cases, about 80 percent, have originated from the south Placer area including Roseville, Rocklin and Lincoln.
Yolo County on Tuesday afternoon reported 33 new COVID-19 cases and one additional death due to the respiratory disease. The county now has reported a total of 999 cases and 29 deaths. About one in ten infections have been linked to outbreaks at long-term care facilities. Stollwood Convalescent Hospital’s outbreak, which was first reported in April, has accounted for 17 deaths.
El Dorado County on Tuesday afternoon reported 13 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total number of infections to 350. It reported 30 infections on Monday. Of those, 156 remain active cases, with two individuals hospitalized, both in intensive care. The number of hospitalized residents decreased by one as of Monday. The county is still reporting no confirmed COVID-19 deaths, but has seen case totals climb faster in the past several days. Almost half of the county’s cases have been reported in the Lake Tahoe region.
North of the four-county capital region, Sutter County reported 20 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday night, for a total of 441 confirmed infections. Of those, 12 are in the hospital. The county has a total of four fatalities, but no new deaths reported Tuesday.
Yuba County reported 10 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday night for a total of 221 cases. Of those, seven are in the hospital. Three have died in the county thus far, but no new deaths reported Tuesday. The county reported a death from COVID-19 on Saturday; the first of the pandemic came in early April.
In the Yuba-Sutter area, about a third of the patients testing positive showed no symptoms of the virus, based on local public health data reported.
World numbers: Death toll at nearly 580,000, more than 13 million infected
More than 13.3 million people have tested positive for COVID-19 worldwide and nearly 580,000 have died as of Tuesday afternoon, according to data maintained by Johns Hopkins University.
About one-quarter of each — more than 3.4 million infections and over 136,000 deaths — have come in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins.
After the U.S., the coronavirus has hit hardest in Brazil, where 1.9 million have tested positive and more than 74,000 have died.
Next by death toll are the United Kingdom at more than 45,000, Mexico at over 36,000, Italy at nearly 35,000, France at just over 30,000 and Spain at more than 28,000, according to Johns Hopkins.
What is COVID-19? How is the coronavirus spread?
Coronavirus is spread through contact between people within 6 feet of each other, especially through coughing and sneezing that expels respiratory droplets that land in the mouths or noses of people nearby.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it’s possible to catch the disease COVID-19 by touching something that has the virus on it, and then touching your own face, “but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
Symptoms of the virus that causes COVID-19 include fever, cough and shortness of breath, which may occur two days to two weeks after exposure.
Most people develop only mild symptoms, but some people develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal. The disease is especially dangerous to the elderly and others with weaker immune systems.
The Sacramento Bee’s Tony Bizjak, Sophia Bollag, Sawsan Morrar, Tim Sheehan and Andrew Sheeler contributed to this story.