Officials race to track down Californians most affected by COVID-19

Diana J. Smith

State and local health officials are racing to get a clearer picture of who is most impacted by COVID-19, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread and afflict some Californians disproportionately.

State officials will now be asking labs and testing sites to collect data on a patient’s sexual orientation and gender identity, and will demand better data collection on a patient’s ethnicity.

The announcement from officials Tuesday comes as Black, Latino and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander residents make up a disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths compared to the overall population. Health experts and advocacy groups say members of the LGBTQ community are also disproportionately harmed by the virus.

Though the rate of new infections has slowed slightly compared to that in late June and early July, certain parts of California are experiencing alarming COVID-19 surges. The Central Valley, as well as parts of Southern California like Imperial County, are seeing a flood of COVID-19 patients at local hospitals.

California reported 8,755 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday morning, bringing the state total now to more than 475,000 infections, according to the latest state public health data. Thus far, 8,715 have died from the virus in the state.

Deaths have dramatically increased from the flat-line levels in May and June: As of Wednesday, an average of 109 people died from the virus in California every day over the last two weeks. Two weeks ago, about 83 people died every day on average over a two-week period.

For the last two weeks, the positivity rate — the portion of tests returning positive — has remained around 7.5%. The World Health Organizations suggests a rate of lower than 5% before reopening the economy, and California puts individual counties on notice when they hit 8% or higher.

At least 6,900 people are in hospital beds with COVID-19 and about 29% of them are receiving intensive care, according to state public health data released Wednesday morning. The number of people hospitalized with the virus is likely higher than that, because historical data from some facilities was not included in the state’s daily release because of a reporting issue.

More than two weeks ago, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced sweeping shutdowns across the state on businesses and schools to slow the record-breaking number of infections and hospitalizations.

That announcement joined a host of existing restrictions in the state meant to curtail the spread: Californians are prohibited from non-essential gatherings, and are strongly encouraged not to travel long distances from home to avoid the spread of the virus. Other state mandates, like requiring masks in public, are also still in effect.

The slowed growth of the virus in California may be correlated with those new shutdowns, though county officials remain cautious about making assessments about its effectiveness.

Modoc, last California county without COVID-19, reports 1st cases

Modoc County has ended its run as the last county in California without a confirmed case of COVID-19.

On Tuesday, the county’s health department announced two positive cases and urged people who had visited bars in the county over the past 14 days to call health authorities.

“How lucky we have been to not see COVID-19 in our county until now, but it’s here and we could see the number of cases increase in the next few weeks,” Stacy Sphar, the county’s director of health services, said in a news release announcing the positive tests.

The release didn’t say why bars were singled out or which of the handful of bars in the remote, sparsely populated county in California’s far northeastern corner may be a potential source of the infection. Home to around 9,500 people, Modoc County is the third-least populated county in the state.

The release said the two cases are people living in the same household, and they were not hospitalized. The county’s hospital and its affiliated nursing home are tightening visitation restrictions, the county said.

COVID-19 hitting dense, poorer Sacramento neighborhoods

Reported COVID-19 cases roughly tripled in Sacramento County during the past four weeks, and several densely populated, economically disadvantaged areas were among the hardest hit, county data show.

Among ZIP codes with at least 10,000 residents, the highest rates of new cases were in 95632 (Galt), 95838 (Del Paso Heights), 95832 (Meadowview), 95823 (Parkway/Valley Hi) and 95815 (Old North Sacramento).

Eleven of the 15 ZIP codes in Sacramento County with the most new cases per capita also had poverty rates above 20%. None of the 15 ZIP codes with the fewest new cases per capita had poverty rates that high.

Some of the increase in COVID-19 cases is due to increased testing. But the percentage of tests returned positive rose from 5.6% in Sacramento County on June 25 to 8.6% on July 25, the latest county data show.

Coronavirus pandemic may be leaving more families hungry

Nearly one in five mothers with young children said their kids were not getting enough to eat in April, according to a study by the Brookings Institution. Black and Latino households with kids are now almost twice as likely to be struggling with food as similar white families.

More than 7,000 people in Sacramento County applied for assistance from the state’s food program, CalFresh, in February. In April, applications had shot to almost 15,000 – more than double.

The Sacramento Food Bank has seen a 100% increase in the number of people it feeds, from 150,000 people per month to more than 300,000.

In July, Sacramento County alone had a backlog of 2,596 unprocessed CalFresh applications, the county’s Department of Human Assistance said, despite extensive staff overtime to meet the surge in need. Meanwhile, most immigrants don’t qualify for CalFresh, said Ramona Landeros, founder of the Benito Juarez Neighborhood Association in Sacramento.

“It’s like a vicious cycle,” said Dr. Hilary Seligman, a professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco who specializes in health care and hunger.

“We’re both worried about food-insecure people being at higher risk of COVID, and people who experience COVID being at really high risk of food insecurity down the line,” Seligman said.

California officials see flood of coronavirus scams

Heard of any good coronavirus scams lately? California officials said Wednesday they’re being flooded with questions and complaints from consumers about fraudulent schemes connected to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In fact, calls and inquiries to the state Department of Business Oversight have jumped 40 percent since March 1, the department said.

“Predatory financial products and services proliferate in an economic crisis,” department Commissioner Manuel P. Alvarez said in a prepared statement.

Between March 1 and the end of June, consumer complaints rose to an average of 588 per month, while email inquiries hit 2,400 per month. Consumers can reach the department at 866-275-2677 or [email protected].

In April, the Sacramento State police department warned students about one coronavirus scam: Someone was sending emails offering high wages for easy jobs after the stay-at-home orders were completely lifted. Police said the perpetrators, who were offering $400 a week for dog-walking and other easy chores, were trying to gain access to students’ bank accounts and other personal information.

Can you get a coronavirus test in California? It depends

California officials say it’s no longer possible for everyone who wants a COVID-19 test to get one because of lab delays and supply shortages.

So who can get a test? That depends on where a person ranks under new guidance the Newsom administration unveiled this month for testing sites and labs to determine whom to schedule for testing and which samples to test first.

Hospital patients with coronavirus symptoms are the highest priority, along with people public health departments believe are connected to an outbreak.

Tier Two includes: People with COVID-19 symptoms, or people who who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive; health care workers, emergency responders, and people who live or work in group settings, even if they don’t have symptoms; asymptomatic hospital patients and people who care for elderly or disabled people.

Tier Three encompasses essential workers who don’t have symptoms but frequently interact with others, specifically workers in retail, manufacturing, food services and production, agriculture, transportation and education.

That means many people who don’t have symptoms or haven’t come into contact with an infected person likely can’t get a test until turnaround times improve, said Dr. Gil Chavez, the new co-chair of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s testing task force.

So far, Ghaly said some people in high priority categories have gotten results “a little bit faster” since the new guidance came out.

1st Yolo County business fined for violating shutdown order

Yolo County officials fined a Woodland gym $2,500 last week after county enforcement staff found the gym was continuing to operate despite a mandated countywide closure because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The county fined NSFit, known until recently as Fit Republic Woodland, after a long education and warning process, according to Yolo County spokeswoman Jenny Tan.

Enforcement staff found the gym operating on multiple occasions, the county said. County officials first made various attempts to contact the gym to inform them of the county’s July 13 order to close indoor businesses.

After issuing a formal letter to the business threatening action on July 17, the county issued the fine Thursday after county enforcement staff noticed people entering the business on three separate occasions. The gym is the first business to be fined in Yolo County, officials said.

As of Tuesday, NSFit remained open. Jeffry Helm, co-owner of the gym, wrote in an email to The Sacramento Bee that he decided to keep his business open in consideration of the economic position of his staff and because he believes fitness and health are important “not only to fight the virus but other mental and health issues.”

“We don’t believe closing business is the solution to the problem we’re facing, in fact, we believe it exacerbates the problem,” Helm wrote. “Clearly we’re not happy with the fine.”

Congress relief plans may help California up coronavirus tests

The next coronavirus relief bill from Congress is expected to have billions of dollars for COVID-19 testing, but competing plans from Republicans and Democrats are far apart on how much money to provide.

The outcome matters in California, where medical labs can’t keep up with demand for coronavirus tests and patients are often waiting days for results. Contact tracing teams have been overwhelmed in some areas due to staffing shortages.

Republicans are offering $16 billion for testing and contact tracing money to give to states as part of a $1 trillion coronavirus aid bill.

Democrats want $75 billion in additional testing money — nearly five times as much — in their $3 trillion package.

Both sides are negotiating a final package to send to President Donald Trump in coming weeks, though the timing on passage is unclear.

“We want to open our economy, open our schools, testing, testing, testing, tracing, tracking, testing, tracking, treating, separation and the rest,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, said Monday. “It takes money and it takes equipment, which we don’t have and they have not made a commitment to. Denial, delay, distortion. That’s their game up until now.”

Pandemic’s impact on LGBTQ community still unclear

The California Department of Health and Human Services announced Tuesday it would begin collecting data regarding COVID-19 patients’ sexual orientation and gender identity.

Members of the LGBTQ community are more likely to have underlying conditions such as cancer and HIV, making the symptoms and effects of COVID-19 more severe. Additionally, LGBTQ people are more likely to work essential jobs and experience hardships with paying rent, according to David Heitstuman, the CEO of the Sacramento LGBT Community Center.

“The COVID-19 crisis has devastated the LGBTQ+ community. But for months, we haven’t had the data to understand how, why or exactly what to do,” said Rick Chavez Zbur, executive director of Equality California.

Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly outlined guidelines for county and healthcare worker reporting through the Cal Ready system. While the data may be lacking at first, he expects the reporting to increase throughout the next month.

California aims to learn more about COVID-19 surge among Latinos

California plans to collect more data on the ethnicity of coronavirus patients after recording a disproportionate increase in infections among Latinos, the state health secretary announced on Tuesday.

There’s been a “significant increase” of COVID-19 cases among California’s Latino population since May, Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said in announcing the plans.

Ghaly, during a COVID-19 briefing, said Latinos made up about 47% of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state in May, but now make up more than half of confirmed cases.

Labs and providers that collect COVID-19 tests will be asked to collect information on race, ethnicity and gender identity and provide it directly to the California Department of Public Health, he said.

Currently, one-third of coronavirus cases reported to the state’s health department of public health contain no information about a person’s race or ethnicity.

“We need that to improve, so that we have a better sense of where transmission is happening, which communities are impacted and what the magnitude of that impact is,” Ghaly said.

Latest Sacramento-area COVID-19 cases and deaths

The six-county region of Sacramento, El Dorado, Placer, Yolo, Sutter and Yuba has seen 14,544 cases of the coronavirus as of Wednesday morning. The virus has killed a total of 192 in the region.

Sacramento County reported 96 new cases Wednesday afternoon. The total number of infections in the county is now 9,514. The death toll in the county is currently 125, after officials reported five new fatalities Wednesday. At least 265 patients with COVID-19 are in hospitals, and 81 of them are receiving intensive care.

Yolo County has reported 1,477 cases and 41 deaths. On Wednesday afternoon, the county reported 29 new COVID-19 cases and two more deaths due to the virus. As of Wednesday, there were 12 patients in hospitals in Yolo County, six of whom were in intensive care. The county had four ICU beds remaining, according to state data. The county on Tuesday reported 23 new cases and two additional deaths. Yolo has seen outbreaks at several long-term care facilities, which account for 118 of the total number of cases and 21 deaths.

Placer County has reported 1,790 cases and 15 deaths, including 37 more infections Wednesday. There are 61 people hospitalized in the county because of the virus and 13 are being treated in ICUs. The county has two more adult ICU beds available.

El Dorado County has reported a total of 589 cases and one death from COVID-19. On Wednesday, the county reported 10 new cases and no new deaths. The county on Tuesday added 24 new cases to its total and 42 cases on Monday from over the weekend. One infected person in the county was hospitalized Tuesday; that person was in intensive care. El Dorado County, despite reporting its first death more than a week ago, remains the only county in the greater Sacramento area to have not been placed onto the state’s regional coronavirus watchlist, reflecting its relatively low number of cases. Nearly half of the total number of cases have been reported in the Lake Tahoe region.

Sutter County has reported a total of 733 COVID-19 cases and six deaths due to the virus. The county added 32 cases to its total Wednesday evening, but no new deaths. The county reported 34 new cases Tuesday and two new deaths this week. Eleven infected people in the county were hospitalized Wednesday and seven of them were in intensive care.

Yuba County has reported a total of 441 COVID-19 cases and four deaths due to the virus. On Wednesday evening, the county reported 26 new cases, a new daily record after reporting 20 new cases on July 21. The county also reported one new death Wednesday. Six infected people in the county were hospitalized Wednesday; one of them were in intensive care.

Latest coronavirus numbers worldwide

Worldwide, more than 16.9 million people have been infected with the coronavirus and over 664,000 people have died as of Wednesday afternoon, according to data maintained by Johns Hopkins University.

The United States accounts for the largest share of infections for any country, with over 4.4 million cases and more than 150,000 deaths.

Brazil follows, with more than 2.5 million infections and over 90,000 deaths. India is third in cases at 1.5 million and sixth in deaths with more than 34,000. More than 46,000 have died in the United Kingdom, more than 44,000 in Mexico and over 35,000 in Italy.

What is COVID-19? How is the coronavirus spread?

Coronavirus is spread through contact between people within 6 feet of each other, especially through coughing and sneezing that expels respiratory droplets that land in the mouths or noses of people nearby.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it’s possible to catch the disease COVID-19 by touching something that has the virus on it, and then touching your own face, “but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

Symptoms of the virus that causes COVID-19 include fever, cough and shortness of breath, which may occur two days to two weeks after exposure.

Most people develop only mild symptoms, but some people develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal. The disease is especially dangerous to the elderly and others with weaker immune systems.

The Bee’s Rosalio Ahumada, Kim Bojórquez, Sophia Bollag, Molly Burke, Emiliano Tahui Gómez, Kate Irby, Dale Kasler, Nathaniel Levine, Phillip Reese, Ryan Sabalow and Malaika Kanaaneh Tapper contributed to this story.

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