There is much that remains unknown about the novel coronavirus, and yet we know how to beat it. As a community we have beaten it before. When California issued the stay-at-home order on March 19, Nevada County was already in the midst of an outbreak. Due to the diligence and sacrifice of our community, we averted catastrophe and were successful in “flattening the curve,” to the extent that we went the whole month of May without any new COVID-19 cases on either side of the county. And then came June. After remaining flat at 41 total cases through May, we’ve added 60 cases between June 1 and June 25, including 49 in the last two weeks of that time period alone.
Working to our advantage this time is that we have drastically increased our contact tracing capacity. Contact tracing involves conducting interviews to identify potential exposures, instituting quarantine and isolation for those exposed or infected, and closely monitoring for new infections.
Contact tracing can be an effective strategy to contain new outbreaks, and it also provides insight into the activities that are contributing to the spread. Surprisingly, contact tracing has revealed that the new cases since June 1 have not been related to the reopening as much as the complacency and relaxation that has come along with reopening. We have seen several instances of an initial infection that then spreads through family gatherings between households, broader social gatherings, and work settings. Additionally, several of the recent outbreaks are related to people showing up to these settings with mild symptoms, assuming they just have allergies.
After being at home for months, it’s understandable that we want to get out and socialize, but with the recent sharp increases in confirmed cases, it’s become more important than ever now to be diligent. Reopening is necessary, but with more people coming in from out of town and more people visiting businesses, it should result in more caution, not less. This will be particularly key with big summer tourism weekends like the Fourth of July and Labor Day.
While this sharp increase is concerning, there are measures we can take to help slow the spread. Let’s not forget the basics: Stay home if you’re even mildly sick, limit intermixing outside your household, wash your hands frequently, keep 6 feet of space, and wear a face covering in public spaces.
It’s worth dwelling on that last point. Recently, the state issued a mask mandate that has been highly contentious and controversial. Among the loudest voices advocating for this mandate were businesses eager to protect their staff and help customers feel safe to shop. I started wearing a face covering months ago when the science was more mixed, and the reason was in observing the stress and concern of grocery store workers. I thought to myself, if it makes that essential worker feel better, I’m okay with the inconvenience of my glasses fogging up a bit.
Since then there has been an emerging consensus that there are aggregate benefits when more people wear face coverings, including modeling that shows many thousands of lives can be saved. Wearing a mask is an act of compassion and community.
When the mandate was announced, news coverage focused on various law enforcement agencies refusing to enforce it. It’s important to note that asking law enforcement officers to cite individuals has never been our enforcement strategy, so our success doesn’t depend on that. Success will come from our sense of community and from our businesses, not because of heavy-handed enforcement.
The best way forward is to not move backwards. As a community we have beaten COVID-19 before, and it is only as a community that we will beat it again.
~ Ryan Gruver is director of the Nevada County Health and Human Services Agency, which includes public health, behavioral health, social services, child support, probation, and public defender departments. Ryan has been with the county since 2006, and lives in Nevada City with his wife, Flavia, and their three children.