RIVERSIDE COUNTY, CA — An uptick of coronavirus spread across California was addressed Tuesday during a news briefing with California Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mark Ghaly, and Riverside County health officials discussed the increase at home as part of the Board of Supervisors meeting.
"An upward trajectory" is happening throughout the state, Ghaly said. "We are concerned about this high level of new cases."
State figures released Tuesday showed Riverside County has an adjusted case rate of 13.9 infections per 100,000 residents. The positivity rate among those tested in the county now stands at 6.7 percent.
Last Tuesday, Riverside County had a case rate of 11.5 infections per 100,000 residents and a positivity rate of 5.9 percent, according to state data.
"We are definitely trending in the wrong direction," Riverside County Department of Public Health Director Kim Saruwatari told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.
Under the state's color-coded coronavirus regulatory framework known as the "Blueprint for a Safer Economy," three California counties — San Diego, Sacramento and Stanislaus — joined were pushed back Tuesday into the most restrictive "purple tier" as a result of increasing virus spread. Riverside County was moved back into the purple tier on Oct. 20.
Five counties (Amador, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Placer and Santa Cruz) moved backward from the orange tier to the "substantial" red tier. Three counties (Modoc, Siskiyou and Trinity) moved backward from the least restrictive yellow tier to orange under the framework.
Ghaly warned that by next week, half the state may find itself back in the purple tier.
The state's testing threshold, which impacts case rates, has moved up. The state now wants 272.41 tests per 100,000 residents. Riverside County stands at 232.9 tests per 100,000, according to Saruwatari.
On Tuesday, Riverside County health officials announced 721 newly confirmed coronavirus cases and 14 additional virus-related deaths since Monday, along with an uptick in hospitalizations.
The total number of coronavirus infections and deaths recorded since the public health documentation period began in early March stands at 72,341 and 1,352, respectively, according to the Riverside University Health System.
RUHS officials reported 244 patients are hospitalized with COVID-19, up 16 from Monday's figures. This includes 70 patients being treated in intensive care units countywide, up six from Monday.
"We are seeing hospitalizations continue to trend up," Bruce Barton, the county's director of Emergency Management Services, told the Board of Supervisors.
Hospitalizations peaked in July with a daily average of 550 patients, and then declined sharply to 119 by early October. With the current increase, local hospitals are once again readying for a patient surge, Barton said.
Supervisor Kevin Jeffries pointed out that Riverside County has a $50 million operating budget deficit, and he worried that Washington DC election turmoil could leave the county without further federal coronavirus funding. That could force the county to pull from its general fund to cover ongoing coronavirus testing and contact tracing.
"Are we prepared to make those really ugly choices?" Jeffries asked.
County CEO George Johnson, who will retire in December, said the county is planning for the worst — zero federal funding, but he acknowledged, "We do need state and federal assistance. We can't do it alone."
Johnson estimated that coronavirus testing and contact tracing is costing the county $5 million per month.
Riverside County Public Health Officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser expressed optimism to the Board of Supervisors about Pfizer's news Monday that its COVID-19 vaccine was 90 percent effective in stage 3 trials, putting it on target to seek emergency approval from the U.S. Drug and Drug Administration by the end of November.
But Kaiser warned that the vaccine is a "long way off from a complete data picture," much less mass production.
If the vaccine receives federal regulatory approval, Kaiser said the vaccine will first go to medical providers, vulnerable populations, and first responders.
Saruwatari provided updated figures on skilled nursing facilities, where COVID-19 infections are increasing. Countywide, 1,832 skilled nursing facility patients and 759 staffers have tested positive for the virus. COVID-19 deaths stand at 353 in the facilities, which represent 26.4 percent of all COVID-19 deaths countywide, Saruwatari said.
Officials have said that, at best, a COVID-19 vaccine might be ready for mass distribution (beyond the high-risk groups) in late spring.