Drive stalls in the red zone

Editor’s note: Sacramento County misses the COVID-19 mark, again, so must wait to reopen more businesses

Sacramento County wanted to move to orange by Halloween, but it’s stuck in red because it still hasn’t lowered COVID-19 cases below the benchmark needed to further loosen restrictions on businesses and gatherings. And county Public Health says one reason is the stubborn spread of coronavirus in nursing homes.

On Tuesday, the state Department of Public Health put the county at 5.7 new cases per day per 100,000 people and a 2.8% test positivity rate countywide, including a 5.0% positive rate in disadvantaged census tracts.

After steady improvement over the past month, those numbers are worse than last week and aren’t low enough to move from the red tier—where the county has been for a month—into the orange tier, which allows more kinds of businesses to open and eases capacity limits. The benchmarks are fewer than 4 new cases a day, plus a test positivity rate below 5%, or a test positivity rate of less than 2% countywide and of less than 2.2% in disadvantaged census tracts.

And a county must hit the numbers for two weeks in a row, which means the soonest now that Sacramento County could reach the orange tier is Nov. 10.

Public Health officials say while the public appears to be heeding the call for wearing masks and social distancing, there has been an increase in cases in long-term care facilities, which account for 206 of 496 total deaths and 1,235 of 25,750 total cases.

“While Sacramento County has maintained much lower daily case numbers than earlier in the year, congregate care facilities such as assisted living, skilled nursing and long term care facilities continue to experience isolated outbreaks, pushing the daily case rate over the State threshold. Public Health continues to work with these facilities to move Sacramento County into the Orange Tier,” Public Health said in a statement.

Nursing homes have been COVID-19 hot spots in California and across the nation. Nearly 6,000 deaths and 59,000 cases have been reported at California skilled nursing and assisted living facilities, according to tracking by the Los Angeles Times. That’s a significant portion of the statewide total of 17,400 deaths and 904,000 cases.

California nursing homes and thousands of others nationwide are facing shortages of mask, gowns and other personal protective equipment, the CALPIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group said in a report Tuesday. And that can lead to outbreaks among residents and staff, the report says.

If and when Sacramento County does reach the orange tier, it would mark a significant and welcome sign of progress during the seven-month state of emergency as COVID fatigue and divisions are rising.

Yet, the respite could be short-lived if, as many experts predict, there’s a third deadly spike of the pandemic in the coming weeks. That’s already happening in some other states, after the initial surge in the spring and the surge during the summer when states reopened the economy.

After a month stuck in the most restrictive purple tier, Sacramento County lowered case numbers enough to move Sept. 29 to the red tier, allowing more businesses to resume limited indoor operations. Until Tuesday, there had been a steady improvement since.

As of Oct. 6, the county was at 5.3 new cases a day and a 3.4% positivity rate. It progressed again as of Oct. 13, with 5.1 new cases per day and a 2.8% positivity rate. And on Oct. 20, the numbers were 4.4 new cases per day and a 2.5% test positivity rate countywide, including 3.5% in disadvantaged census tracts.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who had promoted the #TurnSacramentoOrange campaign, tweeted after the new numbers: “Thank you, Sacramento, for the sacrifices you’re making to fight #Covid. Our caseload remains lower than in summer, but it has ticked up over the past few weeks. Let’s all continue doing our part by wearing masks and maintaining a safe physical distance, especially indoors.”

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