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Household transmissions and large gatherings appear to be driving forces in the COVID-19 surge that has pushed Ventura County back into the purple tier, officials said Tuesday.
For the week ending Oct. 31, 36% of the county’s COVID cases involved more than one infected person at the same address in a sign the virus is being passed from one family member to another, said Dr. Robert Levin, Ventura County public health officer.
Nearly 10% of the cases involved large gatherings, Levin said at a meeting of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors.
The county’s surge began in late October and has climbed in November, following a rise seen across the state and nation. The ascent triggered Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement Monday that 39 California counties would be pushed into a more restrictive tier in the state’s reopening ladder.
Ventura County falls from red to purple, the most restrictive tier. Restaurants, gyms, churches and movie theaters can operate outdoors only. Malls and retail stores can stay indoors but can operate at only 25% capacity in changes set to become effective at midnight a day after Newsom’s announcement.
On Tuesday, Levin focused on the need to control household spread of the virus. He emphasized the need for infected people to be isolated from other family members by the use of separate bathrooms and bedrooms as well as meticulous sanitation. He said families in small dwellings can reach out to public health for help.
“We have hotel and motel rooms to offer them, meals to be brought to them,” he said.
Data suggests schools, grocery stores, nursing homes and health-care sites have played a much lesser role in Ventura County’s COVID rise, Levin said.
As of Sunday, 96 of the county’s more than 16,000 cases of COVID involved schools and many of those focused on infected staff members and not students.
Public health officials said that at least a dozen COVID cases had emerged involving California Lutheran University students with the agency working with the school to control the spread.
A report on a school website said some of the students had not been on campus and linked the COVID cases to an off-campus gathering.
Nearly 5% of the county’s total COVID cases have involved long-term care facilities. About 2% involved grocery stores.
“We’ve really flipped the data in our county,” he said, noting that far fewer cases locally involve health-care sites than across California and more appear to involve transmission in homes.
The surge in cases has triggered a rise in COVID testing in Ventura County with an increase of nearly 50% in one week. County officials said the swab tests are a vital part of the strategy to detect transmission, find exposed people and fight the surge.
Tests are free and are available to people with or without symptoms at government-run sites across the county.
“We want people to feel comfortable in getting tested again and again,” Levin said, urging people not to wait until they have what he called classic symptoms including a sore throat, cough and extreme fatigue. “You could just have vomiting. You could just have a sore throat. You might just have a headache. If you have just one symptom, go get tested.”
The county’s strategy also includes offering additional financial support to affected businesses in an existing grant program and county funds that should become available early next year, said County Executive Officer Mike Powers.
The county is also asking the state to consider the region’s high level of business compliance with COVID restrictions in making tier decisions. Any relief probably won’t come until the county’s case numbers start to fall, Powers said.
The state-mandated slide into purple sparked frustration. Board of Supervisors Chair Kelly Long said that while the rising cases appears linked more to gatherings than businesses, the return to purple could cripple employers and workers.
“We have so many people living paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “How do we help them now?”
Hospitalization numbers have also begun to rise in Ventura County but there is still significant capacity available, said Steve Carroll, administrator for Ventura County Emergency Medical Services Agency. Supplies of ventilators and personal protective equipment are still in place and being tracked closely.
Newsom on Monday floated the possibility of a statewide curfew designed to drive down COVID transmission. Levin said any such curfew would be voluntary and likely used as an alternative to the stay-at-home lockdown previously employed.
“It’s not clear they’re going to do it,” he said of a curfew.
COVID vaccines are the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. County officials said they’re making distribution and storage plans for vaccines including the purchase of super-cooling freezers.
“We’re seeing some hope and light,” said Powers of reports on the effectiveness of the vaccines, then referring to the rising numbers and purple tier restrictions. “At the same time, we see that the road to get there will be tougher.”
Tom Kisken covers health care and other news for the Ventura County Star. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 805-437-0255.
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