As the number of confirmed COVID-19 infections grows seemingly unchecked, Contra Costa County has pulled back on its plans to reopen certain sectors of the economy including bars, dine-in restaurants, gyms and nail salons that were originally planned to open July 1; no revised opening date has yet been proposed.
“With the sharp rise in community spread and hospitalizations, it does not make sense at this time to open additional business sectors that could further accelerate community transmission,” read a press release from Contra Costa Health Services (CCHS) issued June 29. “These businesses and activities will remain closed in Contra Costa until county data indicate that the spread of the virus has slowed, as measured by at least a week of stable case numbers, hospitalizations and percent of tests that are positive. Trends will be monitored and evaluated daily.”
Business owners that had planned to reopen their doors on July 1 were particularly stung by the county’s decision. Tammy Zickuhr opened her new business, Harry’s Wine Depot and Tavern, in Brentwood amid the pandemic by offering take-out and curbside service. She had planned for a three-day-long grand opening celebration during the Fourth of July weekend. Activities are still planned but will be moved outdoors to comply with county regulations.
“I think this go-around is really going to hurt us all,” Zickuhr said. “When they give you a date and you look forward to opening, you go out and purchase double the amount of inventory due to the fact that you will finally have people come in and relax. It kind of bites you, but we all looked forward to opening and serving the community. When we are going to open again, who is going to believe us?”
It appeared as May ended that efforts in the county to contain the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease, were delivering positive results. For the week ending May 30, there were no deaths in the county; 126 new cases were confirmed; the daily growth rate of new cases was 1.3%; there were 15 hospitalized patients; and the 7-day positivity rate was 2.4%. One month later, the outlook for the county is radically different, and identifying the source of that shift has been difficult.
“Our contact tracing efforts haven’t identified any one cause of the rise in case counts,” said Karl Fischer, CCHS community and media relations specialist. “This tells us that general community transmission is to blame. We did expect some increase as more activities and businesses reopened, but the trends are concerning.”
The daily growth rate in cases for the week ending June 27 was 3% — more than double the rate at the end of May. For the last three days of June, that rate increased again to 5%. And while an increase in testing may be a factor in the increased cases, the positivity rate, which measures the percentage of positive test results, has been on the rise since the end of May. The seven-day positivity rate was reported as 6.8% at the end of June, another indicator that the virus is circulating widely in the community.
“The increasing positivity rate suggests a rise in community spread,” explained Fischer. “We are still below the 8% threshold we are trying to remain under.”
Deaths in the county were also up significantly in June, more than doubling since the end of May to the current count of 77 fatalities. But unlike the rise in infections, the rise in deaths can be traced to a single source — long-term care facilities.
“Many of these deaths are associated with outbreaks in nursing homes,” Fischer said. “As of Friday, 50 of the 73 COVID-19 deaths in the county have been associated with long-term care facilities such as nursing homes. This is something being seen across the state and the country.”
As newly confirmed COVID-19 cases spiked throughout the month, the number of hospitalized patients peaked in June at 42 and ended the month at 37. The highest number of hospitalized patients the county experienced since the start of the pandemic was 44 in mid-April. It appears that patients with confirmed COVID-19 infections are being hospitalized at a lower rate than earlier in the pandemic. The reasons behind that shift aren’t yet clear, but increasing infection rates among younger people who are otherwise healthy might be a factor. CCHS reported that in June, 55% of people testing positive in Contra Costa were under 41 years old, compared to 38% for that group in April.
“While frustrated for sure at this delayed opening of additional businesses, especially this close to opening, I do appreciate the courage of the county in delaying this based on the recent data for now,” Brentwood City Manager Tim Ogden said. “I hope the trends of concern shift, and more reopenings can begin soon.”