By Erin de Lafontaine, Deirdre Henderson, and Silke Pflueger
We are three friends from Truckee, all of whom are experiencing fright and exhaustion from the COVID-19 pandemic. One of us is undergoing cancer treatment and has a weakened immune system. One of us is the mother of a young emergency medicine physician working on the COVID frontline and the spouse of a highly at-risk person. One of us is a small business owner, and the mother of a child who should be starting college in August but has postponed doing so because of the pandemic.
Our particular sensitivities to the virus led us to investigate Truckee’s COVID case rate after observing the increasing visitors to town, failure of some people to wear masks, obvious lapses in social distancing, and news every day about California’s surging case totals. Using information available on the Nevada County and California Department of Public Health websites, we were able to approximate Truckee’s 14-day case rate per 100,000 people for recent 14-day periods.
This rate, typically calculated at the county level, is one of the criteria that can land a county on the CDPH “watch list” and subject it to various “dimmer switch” actions that reinstitute COVID restrictions. Any rate over 100 puts a county on the watch list.
Based on a 2019 U.S. Census estimate of a 16,735 population in Truckee, and using Nevada County’s new case totals classified as “Eastern County” (almost exclusively Truckee), we calculated Truckee’s 14-day case rates for the period ending July 3 as 185, well over the 100 threshold. Using these estimation tactics, as of July 16, Truckee’s 14-day case rate had risen to 191 and by July 20 it had climbed to almost double the watch list threshold at 197. If Truckee were a county, it would be on the state watch list.
Because of the incubation period of the disease and increasing delays in getting test results, we may not yet know what effect the July 4th holiday weekend had on local case rates. Dr. Nancy Williams, the public health officer for El Dorado County, came to the same conclusion last week about the city of South Lake Tahoe: If it were a county, it would be on the CDPH watch list.
We found our calculations so disturbing we sent the data to the town council and interim town manager, and suggested it be verified with the Nevada County Public Health Department. We also suggested discussing with NCPHD treating Truckee as a separate subset for determining opening parameters, and we suggested enforcing the state mask mandate.
The interim town manager emailed us a long reply containing information that was, later the same day, sent out to the town’s public email list. She wrote, without citing specific data, that contact tracing indicates that “most of the new cases in Nevada County, and our surrounding regional areas, come directly from informal gatherings between different households, including parties, extended family gatherings, and shared meals.”
Linked to the email was a Nevada County poster indicating that we can only socialize (or “gather”) with members of our immediate household. This seems like sad but sound advice.
It is not hard to imagine, however, that for many people this messaging causes cognitive dissonance. Before the governor’s most recent switch-dimming, a person might have asked, “So, I can’t have friends or family to my home, but I can meet them in a bar downtown or go on a rafting trip?” Or how about the problem of, “I am supposed to stay home this summer and only socialize with members of my immediate household, but my town is flooded with tourists and vacationers from other places. Are they only socializing with members of their immediate household, and how do we know?” Not to mention, “The short-term rental next door has five cars parked in the driveway.” And when a county has been put on the CDPH watch list, the first dimmer-switch action we hear about is closing bars and inside restaurant dining, not private socializing.
Because of everyone’s understandable desire to return to normal, the job of messaging what folks should be doing is tough. But perhaps it’s time to recognize that we have opened up too fast, and that we have not taken the time to account for the psychological effects of opening up and the amount of messaging and work necessary to get everyone to absorb the limitations that accompany loosening restrictions.
The Town of Truckee is concerned about the effects of the pandemic on local businesses. So are we. Economists tell us that tourism and travel, so important to Truckee, will be one of the economic sectors worst hit by COVID-19 and one of the slowest to recover. That is not good news. The worst thing for Truckee right now is to be on an opening-and-closing economic see-saw. We fear that is where we will be unless we re-examine and adjust the path we have been on.
~ Silke Pflueger, Deirdre Henderson, and Erin de Lafontaine bonded over their shared love of Truckee and their mutual concern for its economic, social, and environmental well-being. Erin has lived in Truckee for over 24 years, and is the mother of two teenagers, and a small business owner. Deirdre has lived in Truckee since 2016 and is the mother of two adults and a grandmother. Deirdre is the leader of the North Tahoe chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Silke has lived primarily in Truckee for over 10 years and is a key leader of Tahoe Truckee Indivisible. Silke also ran for California State Senate, District 1, in a special election in 2019.