The Delta variant, an incredibly contagious strain of SARS-CoV-2, is wreaking havoc across the United States. Locally, the state testing site located in Truckee recently experienced a 44% increase in Covid-19 tests administered, per Placer County staff. Regionally, Nevada County hospitals are seeing a peak number of Covid inpatients to date.
The OptumServe site on Donner Pass Road was normally slated for a capacity of 630 tests per week. Two weeks ago, however, staff administered 906 tests. Thus, this past Monday, the clinic’s hours were extended to 12 hours per day to accommodate the rising volume (although smoke impacts caused a closure of the clinic on the first day of its new hours).
While positive Covid-19 case counts aren’t the highest they’ve ever been around Truckee/North Tahoe, the coronavirus’ pathology has forced its way back to the forefront of people’s minds in terms of increasing case counts, how numbers compare to the last Covid surge, and what local health officials are focused on: immunizations.
Dr. Scott Kellermann, public health officer for Nevada County, places blame on the Delta variant, which was first identified this past December in India before spreading to Great Britain and now the U.S., where it was responsible for 80% of new Covid cases during July.
“It’s got [roughly] 1,200 times as much virus in people’s lungs as the original virus …,” Kellermann told Moonshine Ink. “And that’s the reason that people, even people who were immunized, are potentially getting infected. Because the system gets overwhelmed by the amount of virus you’re exposed to.”
On Wednesday, Kellermann updated a local mandate requiring face masks indoors to include masks in outdoor crowd settings. The mandate also puts capacity limits on events, indoor and outdoor.
The same day, Placer County Public Health formally advised residents to use high-quality masks in indoor settings to protect against the Delta variant, particularly as cases in school settings (once uncommon for spreading the virus) are increasing.
Harry Weis, CEO of Tahoe Forest Hospital, is tracking the virus in terms of peaks and valleys. He’s noted that about four months have been occurring between peaks, with a low point falling two months after each peak.
“If I look across the world, there was a peak on Jan. 8, ; there was a peak on April 23,” Weis said. “… Certainly, in the U.S., around Aug. 20 was a peak.”
The trajectory is upward bound in the hospital’s service area. On July 30, the number of positive-reported cases from eastern Nevada County, eastern Placer County, and western Washoe County was 20. Aug. 6 had 50; Aug. 13, 70; and Aug. 20, 91. “The question is,” Weis posed, “this next Friday (tomorrow), will it be more, will it flatten, or go down?”
Regardless, local counts have already reached significant landmarks. Washoe County, for example, recently reported its 50,000th positive case and 700th death due to the virus. Those fully vaccinated account for 59.98% of the county population.
In El Dorado County’s Tahoe region, there have been just shy of 3,300 positive cases of Covid-19 and 11 deaths. Of the county’s total population, 56.7% have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Nevada County, to date, has accounted for 6,900 cases and 83 deaths — eight in the month of August alone. Additionally, 31 individuals are currently hospitalized with Covid-19 in county hospitals, the highest number yet during the entire pandemic, with 27 of them at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital in Grass Valley alone. Of the total number of county cases, over 5,300 live in the western portion of the county, while about 1,500 live in the eastern part (including Truckee).
Kellermann pointed to higher immunization numbers for the Truckee portion of the county to explain why there aren’t as many positive cases and hospitalizations there. Currently, the 96161 zip code, which accounts for Truckee, has 68% of its population with at least one vaccine shot. The Grass Valley zip code (95945) has 62% of its population having received at least one shot.
Placer County counts about 29,000 confirmed cases and 316 deaths. About 56% of Placer’s population age 12 and up is fully vaccinated.
Placer staff did not have a Truckee-specific breakdown of positive cases determined through the DPR OptumServe site, but said that as of Aug. 15, the positivity rate for both of Placer’s OptumServe sites (the second being in Roseville) was 11%. (Meanwhile, El Dorado showed a 20% positive rate through its own state testing sites, and Nevada County, 16% — both as of Aug. 15.) Placer did not have a total number of tests run through the Truckee testing site.
And within Tahoe Forest Hospital’s walls, four inpatients are currently confirmed positive for Covid-19. As of last Friday, 449 inpatients who passed through the hospital’s doors were diagnosed with the virus, and four people have died from the disease. Compared with the fall surge in 2020 (when inpatient numbers peaked at 12), the volume of Covid inpatients is manageable; by no means a peak, according to Ted Owens, TFH governance and business development executive director. During the month of August, TFH has seen between one and five Covid patients per day. The ICU, which has six beds, has seen an average of two Covid patients over the past week.
“We probably wouldn’t have this conversation if immunization rates were 100% and everybody had just gotten immunized,” Kellermann said. “The Delta variant would be affecting some people, but they wouldn’t be very sick and they wouldn’t be hospitalized. Now, the unimmunized are getting sick and getting hospitalized. Younger, sicker, quicker.”
Nevada County’s Sierra Nevada Memorial and Tahoe Forest hospitals’ CEOs have both said that of hospitalized Covid cases, about 90% are unvaccinated.
Regarding the resources needed in this current peak of the disease, Weis said local inventory of personal protective equipment at the hospital (N-95 masks, goggles, gloves, and gowns) is being managed well: “We have weekly and daily consumptions, but then we also have at least a 90-day reserve out there.”
Not necessarily in short supply for the Truckee hospital, but certainly something Weis is keeping an eye on, is staffing availability.
“I do believe at many [other hospitals] the employees are working even seven days a week to care for patients,” he said. “We could have spotty situations where that might be going on as well, but I think overall we’re in much better shape than most employers.”
Kellermann reported that the Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital is experiencing a staff shortage.
Herd immunity remains the top solution for diminishing Covid-19’s hold over the country, yet the steps needed to reach this prize remain high in number and fairly nebulous. Kellermann said 90% to 95% of the population either needs to be vaccinated or have already contracted the virus to don the immunity reward. But whether a previous infection provides the same level of immunity isn’t clear, and may not be for years.
“We don’t know enough about immunity that you get from infection,” said Glennah Trochet, Nevada County deputy public health officer. “If you had Covid back in January or February, was that the same variant that’s circulating now and will that immunity protect you now? … That adds to not really knowing at what point we’ll get immunity.”
The short-term solution, regardless, happens on the ground, according to Kellerman: “This virus is going to be circling for a while, sad to say … We’ve got some simple weapons against this — immunization, masking, hand washing, distancing. But certainly, if you can be immunized and wear a mask, you’re pretty well protected.”