As Contra Costa County enters its 11th week under a shelter-in-place order, the prospects for further loosening of restrictions remain unclear.
The current Contra Costa Health Service (CCHS) order expires May 31. As of this writing, the county has not indicated what, if any, restrictions will be eased when an updated order is put into effect.
“For everyone looking for a date to put on the calendar, I’m afraid I have to disappoint,” said Anna Roth, CCHS director. “We are dealing with a virus that won’t be contained by a clock. COVID-19 is capricious by its nature.”
Statewide, the easing of restrictions is occurring at a faster pace. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s four-stage Resilience Roadmap is guiding the effort to restart the economy. Under that plan, late Stage 2 activities — including in-store retail shopping, in-person religious services and reopening hair salons and barbershops — have all been OK’d by the state with restrictions, contingent upon local approval by county health officers.
“Together, our actions have helped bend the curve and reduce infections in our state,” said Dr. Sonia Angell, state public health officer and director of the California Department of Public Health. “As sectors continue to open with changes that aim to lower risk, remember that COVID-19 is still present in our communities.”
However, residents of Contra Costa County will not be able to enjoy these activities.
Most counties, 46 of the state’s 58, have been approved to advance further into Stage 2 of the governor’s roadmap based on their progress against the state’s criteria. Contra Costa and several other Bay Area counties have yet to take that step. The criteria includes measurements of hospitalization rates, positive testing rates, the number of residents tested on a daily basis, contact tracing capabilities and surge capacity management. Each county must also provide plans to monitor progress and reinstitute restrictions if COVID-19 cases begin to climb again.
Contra Costa remains in an early phase of Stage 2. Last week, CCHS modified its existing order to allow curbside pickup for retail businesses, though restrictions apply. Stores may not display merchandise for sale outside the stores, and customers may not enter the store or interior of any indoor shopping mall. Stores must also employ reasonable measures to require customers to comply with social-distancing requirements in pickup areas.
“While this is not a return to normal, it is one step in that direction,” said Dr. Chris Farnitano, Contra Costa County’s health officer. “We will be closely monitoring the effects of allowing curbside retail on the spread of COVID-19 in the community.”
CCHS reports 1,375 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the county as of May 26. The rate at which new cases are being reported has increased. The weekly growth rate in new cases for the week ending May 23 was 15.2% compared to 9.6% the prior week, a 58% increase week over week. That growth is primarily attributed to more testing.
“Cases will initially go up as testing increases,” explained Will Harper, CCHS spokesperson. “But over time as testing is brought to scale, we would hope to see the case numbers flatten or decline because of social distancing and other prevention measures. We also look at hospitalization numbers to assess whether or not we are seeing a true surge or just more testing.”
In East County, Antioch has reported 120 positive COVID-19 cases; Brentwood, 68; Oakley, 51; Discovery Bay, nine; and Bethel Island, one.
Hospitalization numbers have been falling steadily since they peaked in the middle of April. There are currently 13 patients hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19 infections. The number of patients was as low as nine and ticked back up to 15 over that last week, a fact that was a cause for concern at CCHS. Harper noted that CCHS is watching hospitalizations closely, and while the daily numbers are up, the seven-day average is down from one week ago.
The daily average of completed tests was 993 for the week ending May 23 compared to 639 per day the prior week, a 55% increase week over week. Though the number of daily tests is increasing, it still falls short of the county’s goal, which Farnitano pegged at 2,200 per day.
“Like other counties, we’ve had challenges with testing for a variety of reasons, such as supplies and staffing,” Harper said. “We’ve been encouraged to see our numbers improve recently as the county has increased its capacity by adding staffing at testing sites and redeploying employees to help schedule testing appointments.”
Over the month of May, the rolling seven-day average of positive tests has run roughly from 2.5% to 3.5%. According to Harper, the World Health Organization indicates positive tests should be lower than 5% for 14 days.
“By that measure, we’re doing well,” he said. “Still, we are keeping an eye out for increases in the positivity rate as a barometer of how widely COVID is circulating in Contra Costa.”
There have been 37 deaths in the county. The majority of deaths have occurred in patients aged over 70 with this age group accounting for 27 of the fatalities in the county. Only a single patient under 50 has died as a result of COVID-19.
“We think virus spread in our community is stable at this time,” Harper concluded.