(Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect a correction in test-result timing that erroneously stated turnaround had gone from seven days to 2.46 days. The correct turnaround time for test results is now 4.6 days.)
California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced yesterday that Placer and San Diego counties have both been removed from the state’s COVID-19 monitoring list, which dictates a threshold for counties’ reopening plans. The removal follows a weeks-long freezing of any movement on or off the list in the wake of backlog and undercount issues with the statewide database, resulting in inaccurate reporting of positive COVID case numbers. Those issues have now been resolved.
The county had been placed on the list on July 9, with indoor businesses such as hair salons, fitness centers, and restaurants forced to close indoor operations days later following a July 13 state health order.
“We have 40 [counties] today on the monitoring list … We had 42 on Monday,” Newsom said at a press conference yesterday. “The two counties that have dropped off since Monday, these are very encouraging signs, [are] San Diego County and Placer County.”
Newsom advised that San Francisco could soon follow suit provided the numbers fall in line with the requirements.
“We would then have 39 of our 58 counties on that list,” he continued. “So, we want to see this list go down to zero.”
A day earlier at a Placer County board of supervisors meeting, Public Health Officer Dr. Aimee Sisson had indicated that Placer would be moving off the list. Explaining that the county had met all criteria for removal for three consecutive days, Sisson at the Tuesday meeting said,“This means that Placer County will be removed from the monitoring list tomorrow. Yes, you heard that right. We’re coming off the monitoring list.”
So what does that mean for the future of the county? While it could spell good news for parents hoping to actually send their kids off to school for the first day, it’s unlikely that that may happen just yet. In order to reopen for in-person education — or even some hybrid combination of in-person and distance learning — Placer County must remain off the state monitoring list for two straight weeks.
“If Placer County remains off the monitoring list for 14 days, all K-12 schools may choose to reopen for in-person instruction under the modifications outlined in state guidance without the need for a waiver from the local health officer,” Sisson explained. She said that to-date only seven schools, all of them private, had sought to obtain a waiver to start the year with in-person instruction.
For parents in the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, that 14-day timeline would lead to a period of uncertainty for just a few days before the first day of school, during which the district must decide whether to go with a hybrid option or to stick with the currently anticipated distance learning model for the first month of school. Despite the district’s schools being located in both Nevada and Placer counties, and students coming from as far as El Dorado County, TTUSD falls under the umbrella of the Placer County Superintendent of Schools, and there remains much to consider. To date, neither Nevada nor El Dorado have been placed on the state monitoring list.
Following an Aug. 3 directive issued by Placer and Nevada County health officers, Sisson and Dr. Richard Johnson, stating that schools in the district must open in distance learning, the district set forth its Coronavirus COVID-19 Update and School Opening Plan. While the district looked to the counties for guidance, it also took into consideration the numbers of cases within the TTUSD boundaries.
The case rate in Placer and Nevada counties at the time the school district voted on its reopening plan was 153.8 per 100,000 residents, according to the public health officers. In the Nevada County portion of the school district, the majority of the cases were located in Truckee, where the case rate was 216.7 per 100,000 residents — more than double the 100 cases per 100,000 residents case rate threshold the state set for counties to be placed on the monitoring list.
Following the governor’s announcement, Moonshine Ink reached out to TTUSD seeking comment on whether Placer’s removal from the watch list might have any bearing on the decision to start off the year with distance learning. Coordinator of District Communications Kelli Twomey said that Superintendent Carmen Ghysels, who took over the position earlier this month following the retirement of Dr. Robert Leri, has been in regular communication with both the Placer County and Nevada County health officers.
“The other concern the health officers had is the limited access to testing in our area, coupled with the delay in receiving results,” Twomey explained. “This is part of the criteria that the health officers use to evaluate if we are safe to reopen schools.”
Though it remains to be seen whether there will be a possibility of going back to school in person, Twomey noted that the district has compiled a comprehensive handbook that addresses many of the questions both parents and students might have.
Under the Considerations for Partial or Total Closure section, the guidebook states, “Once a county is removed from the COVID-19 monitoring list and our schools reopen, we are not required to close again if the county is placed back on the monitoring list.” Rather, individual school closures would be recommended “based on the number of cases, the percentage of teachers/students/staff that are positive for COVID-19, and we’ll consult with our local health officers and follow their directives.”
While there may be a glimmer of hope for those hoping for in-person educational instruction, Placer’s removal from the monitoring list does not mean the reopening of businesses closed as a result of a particular county previously being placed on the watch list.
“Businesses like hair salons and places of worship will not be permitted to resume indoor operations following the county’s removal from the list,” said Sisson, explaining that she is working to see that changed. “I will continue to advocate to [California Department of Public Health] to link removal from the monitoring list to reopening of businesses.”
Placer Supervisor Cindy Gustafson mentioned to Moonshine that she heard the county has written more letters to the governor than any other county. The constant questions are important, not only because winter and snow are coming, but also because the infection numbers aren’t pointing to salons, places of worship, indoor dining, etc. to be the reason for COVID’s spread.
“The state has deemed those [places] risky and has closed them,” Gustafson said, “but we’re continuing to look at the information and plead to see if [the state has] information we don’t have that would better indicate those risks. And certainly some of the photos you’ve seen of bars and the spring break indoor group gatherings are more risky, we know that, but if you’re seated at smaller capacity at restaurants and spread apart and wearing face coverings when up and around the restaurant, we believe that works and we believe that really reduces the risk.”
Sisson also said the county’s two testing sites, located in Rocklin and Truckee, continue to operate at or near capacity, although she was happy to note that the wait time for both scheduling appointments and getting test results has decreased. Appointment wait time is now 1 to 2 days, down from the previous seven-day wait, while the turnaround time for test results is down from seven days to 4.6 days.
The number of hospitalizations in the county has remained relatively stable over the past two weeks, Sisson said, with 64 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Placer’s three hospitals, 95% of which were admitted because of COVID. Of the 15 confirmed COVID patients in intensive care in county hospitals, 87% were there as a result of COVID.
As of Sisson’s Tuesday press briefing, the number of beds available among the three hospitals remained low, with only eight total adult beds available and only six available in ICU. Sisson said that among the 2,625 lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases in Placer, there have 28 resident deaths; eight of which were in the past week alone.
“Deaths are a lagging indicator, and while case rates and hospitalizations may have peaked, we predict that deaths will continue to climb,” she said.
Sisson noted that all of the deceased so far had underlying health issues, with many of those who have died having resided in long-term care facilities.
“COVID-19 continues to circulate throughout the community and sadly has resulted in more deaths,” Sisson said. “While we’re only a little more than halfway through August, it has already been the deadliest month to date for COVID-19 with 11 deaths recorded so far.”
Sisson cautioned that residents should not become lackadaisical when it comes to preventive measures in protecting themselves and others from COVID-19.
“I urge our community to continue to exercise healthy habits so that we can stay off this list and allow our schools and hopefully also some of our businesses to move forward with reopening,” she said. “To slow the spread of COVID-19 and prevent further disease and death, we continue to recommend the following precautions: Avoid gathering with non-household members, stay 6 feet apart from people you don’t live with, wear a face covering in public, and stay home if you are sick or have been exposed to somebody with COVID-19.”