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Claremont, county take steps backward as cases rise

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

Governor Gavin Newsom has characterized the slow and purposeful reopening of California’s economy as operating a light bulb on a dimmer switch, and on Wednesday he turned the switch back down for about 70 percent of the state’s population.

During a news conference, the governor mandated that indoor restaurants, tasting rooms, entertainment centers, movie theaters, museums, zoos and card rooms must shut down in 19 counties including most of Southern California. Earlier in the week, he ordered bars to shut down here, and Wednesday’s order expanded that to more locations. The restrictions, which were in part aimed at limiting gatherings ahead of the Fourth of July weekend, will remain in place for at least three weeks.

The governor’s actions came as public health officials’ worst fears about a resurgence of the coronavirus were realized the past few weeks. Spikes in confirmed cases and hospitalizations, both here in Los Angeles County and across the state, threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system.

The governor asked that fireworks shows, as well as private and public gatherings, be cancelled for the upcoming holiday weekend, a message that was echoed by local health officials. He also praised those who wear face coverings in public as “heroic” and “courageous.”

Late Monday afternoon the COVID-19 Emergency Operations Center announced that Los Angeles County beaches would be closed this coming holiday weekend. On Tuesday, the governor closed parking lots at state beaches in the counties affected by the order. Over Wednesday and Thursday, most cities announced that southern California beaches would be closed for the Fourth weekend.

“We were able to bend the curve before, and we will bend the curve once again. We will do it thoughtfully and deliberately,” Governor Newsom said.

Acknowledging that enforcing his order would be nearly impossible on a wide scale, Governor Newsom went with the carrot over the stick, offering unspecified financial resources to counties that complied.

The sudden increase in new cases statewide appears to be tied to relaxing the stay-at-home order and the resulting rush to public spaces such as parks and beaches over the Memorial Day weekend. The massive demonstrations over the death of George Floyd also appeared to have played a role. Public health officials said they were anticipating an increase in positive cases as people returned to work, but the rapid and sudden rate of new infections caused alarm.

The outbreak in Claremont mirrors the statewide trend, as local cases were more or less flat in May but have doubled over the past month.

On Wednesday, the county reported 108 cumulative cases in Claremont, up from 88 a week ago, an increase of 18.5 percent. A county database reports that 2,446 people in Claremont have been tested, or about 6.7 percent of the population. The positivity rate here is 4 percent,  which is significantly lower than the county overall.

Locally it’s not all bad news as the outbreak at Country Villa Healthcare Center has stabilized. Unfortunately, one more person there has died, bringing total deaths for employees and residents to three. Claremont’s confirmed deaths remain at two, which is quite low for a city of 36,000.

The biggest impact of the governor’s order in Claremont will be on restaurants, many of which had recently reopened. With dining rooms closed, restaurants can only offer take out or serve customers at outside tables. That exception resulted in a sharp increase in inquiries about the city’s new Al Fresco program, which allows restaurants to expand dining outside on a temporary basis.

Claremont’s Public Information Officer Bevin Handel said that the city has elected to push back to July 20 a planned reopening of lobbies at city hall, the Hughes Center, the city yard and the police station.

Claremont City Manager Tara Schultz released a video via social media asking residents to support Claremont’s businesses by wearing masks in public.

“Our shops, restaurants and services all need your help and part of that is wearing a mask,” she said. “This is a time of personal responsibility and social responsibility, please don’t give the shop keepers and hostess showing you to your table a hard time when they ask you to put your mask on.”

During a news conference Monday, Los Angeles County Director of Public Health Barbara Ferrer was blunt in her message, asserting that the persistent rise in cases is not a result of more testing, but a sign that community spread is once again on the rise.

Perhaps more troubling is the increase in both hospitalizations and positivity rates among people getting tested. The seven day average positivity rate in the county has reached 8.4 percent from a low of 4.6 percent in early May.

Early in the pandemic, positivity rates were in the double digits, largely because only people with symptoms or those most at risk of death could be tested. That rate dropped considerably as testing became more widely available, so the recent trend upward is a clear sign that the virus is once again infecting more Angelenos.

Public health officials now say that when venturing into public people have a one in 140 chance of coming into contact with an infected person, an increase from one in 400 in a single week. With nearly 3,000 cases identified in a single day and the Fourth of July holiday coming up this weekend, this is a critical time for controlling the virus.

“What happens in our hospitals reflects what happened two weeks ago,” she said, adding that the county is likely to see an increase in deaths if the trend continues.

Some COURIER readers have raised concerns about ICU capacity at our local hospitals as the virus continues to spread. Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center released a statement on Wednesday addressing some of those concerns.

“Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center (PVHMC) has activated its surge plan, which increased adult critical care capacity to 66 beds. At this time, approximately 25 percent of its critical care beds are available. Of patients being cared for in critical care units, 40 percent are confirmed to have COVID-19. The hospital is prepared to further expand its surge capacity to 83 critical care beds, if needed,” the statement read.

Pomona Valley officials emphasize that the hospital remains a safe place to seek care. “Please do not delay emergency care due to fear of contracting COVID-19 in a healthcare setting. PVHMC is taking extra steps to ensure patient safety.”

Ms. Ferrer pleaded with residents to take the necessary steps to keep themselves and the community safe—wear a cloth face covering, practice social distancing and stay at home except for essential tasks.

She also admonished the many businesses in the county that have not followed the strict reopening protocols, putting not only employees and their customers at risk but also jeopardizing their ability to remain open.

“This is temporary, this isn’t forever, this isn’t even for another year. This is a temporary set of steps we are asking everyone to take because we have seen these dramatic increases and we need to get this back under control so that we can remain on a recovery journey,” Ms. Ferrer said.

“It’s important to remember that this virus can be life-threatening for many people, especially those who are at an increased risk for severe illness,” said Gurbinder Sadana, MD, medical director of critical care and pulmonology at PVHMC. “We must all do our part to slow the spread of COVID-19 and protect those who are most vulnerable by wearing a mask or face covering in most public settings outside the home, washing hands frequently, practicing social distancing and staying home when possible.”

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