IMPERIAL VALLEY — An elderly man who died in a San Diego-area hospital has become the first COVID-19-related fatality for Imperial County as the number of positive cases has risen to 51, according to the latest data from the county Public Health Department released April 2.
“My heartfelt condolences go out to the individual’s family and friends during this difficult time,” county Health Officer Dr. Stephen Munday said in a press release April 2. “Any loss of life is tragic, but this is particularly sobering.”
The announcement was made during a telephonic press conference between Munday, County Executive Officer Tony Rouhotas Jr. and members of the local media early in the afternoon April 2.
Munday said during the press conference that no details would be shared about the patient, including age, sex or city of residence, only that the patient died in a San Diego-area hospital. Munday stated in the release that the individual did have “underlying health conditions,” which he also described as “multiple medical issues” in the press conference.
Rouhotas confirmed during the press briefing that the individual was a sometime Imperial County resident who also lived in Baja California, Mexico.
“We’re not sure where he contracted it,” Munday said, adding the man had been to other areas with known COVID cases besides Imperial County. The doctor also did not say when exactly the patient died.
As of the evening of April 2, Imperial County had 51 confirmed positive COVID cases, with nine results pending from the state public health lab in San Diego, and a total of 329 negative test results reported through a combination of public and private lab testing. Public Health officials say six patients have recovered from COVID and are out of isolation.
In Mexicali and Baja California, the numbers are also rising. In Mexicali, Baja’s capital city, two were dead, with 31 confirmed cases and 43 results pending as of the morning of April 3. For Baja as a whole, four were dead with 52 confirmed positive cases.
Meanwhile, it is expected the number of positive tests in Imperial County will begin to rise more rapidly as those tested for the virus increase and the results of public and private laboratories continue to merge.
Testing in California continues to be problematic, as the number of pending results in the Golden State represented 99 percent of all pending tests in the U.S. as of an April 2 audit of data from the state’s 58 county public health departments.
The Testing Problem in California
California had 59,500 tests pending as of April 1, according to data collected by covidtracking.com, a website created by two reporters from The Atlantic, who had been monitoring results throughout the United States.
At the time of publication of an April 2 report on the backlog of testing results in the state, City Journal, an oft-cited publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, found that California had 59,100 tests pending among a total of 59,567 pending tests in all of the country.
Problems seem to be the number of labs conducting tests and the availability of testing materials in the state, a problem that exists locally as well.
California only has 22 state Public Health Department labs, with the closest location to Imperial County being in San Diego, so Imperial County Public Health has had to rely on both the San Diego public lab and private labs.
Local testing is picking up as more tests become available to local hospitals, clinics, public and private healthcare providers and private labs, but so are the numbers of people meeting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criteria to be tested, which include those 65 and older, those in high-risk categories that suffer from existing conditions like diabetes or heart disease, and those with obvious signs of respiratory illness.
In a move that was not immediately the norm at the time it was announced, Munday said March 10 that he mandated all Imperial County private labs report both positive and negative test results to the Public Health Department so local officials would have a better handle on the number of potential cases. The first positive COVID test came two days later.
The daily reporting from Imperial County Public Health shows the positive cases and negative cases are made up of public and private testing. However, the number of daily pending results is only coming from the public lab in San Diego.
An example of how many positive results are coming from private testing vs. public testing was included in an April 1 snapshot when Public Health revealed that 21 of 43 positive tests came from private labs, according to Andrea Bowers, a county Public Health public information officer.
How is the County Trying to Increase Testing?
Munday said during a press conference March 28 that Imperial County Public Health is trying to increase its own testing capabilities by establishing a lab locally.
“Our lab is working on a process where we can do our own testing, but we’re competing for materials,” Munday said.
The public health officer said the department has a testing machine and “a plan in place,” but that “we are working on the procurement piece,” meaning the testing materials aren’t available.
County epidemiology staff gave an update on the local testing efforts April 1.
“We currently have an allocation plan established with the manufacturer and are awaiting our allocation of test kits. Following a brief validation period, we will be able to conduct testing of samples received from our local hospitals,” Bowers wrote to this newspaper.
“Understandably, the manufacturer is prioritizing allocation for those areas that have been hardest hit. Once we receive our allocation and are ready to go, we will share that information,” Bowers added.
Who is Testing Locally?
It’s unclear who all of the entities are testing for COVID in Imperial County, but we know they are a mix urgent-care centers, hospitals, private labs, doctors offices, and a mix of different types of practitioners, from family physicians and general practitioners, to specialists and pediatricians.
Also, there seems to be a wide range of different types of tests being used.
For example, Dr. Tien Vo’s office posted on its social media site March 30 that it had six confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 found during its initial testing drive at Vo Medical Center in Calexico, with more results pending. His office was using swabs that took at least 24 hours to get results back.
Pediatrician Vishwa Kapoor also had been conducting testing from her El Centro office, although it wasn’t immediately clear what type of tests.
Generally, it is taking 24 to 48 hours to get back test results, depending on the lab, county officials have said.
All Valley Urgent Care Center in El Centro posted on its social media site that at least two positive cases had come from its clinic, and it was using a 10-minute rapid-response test.
Where are the Positives Coming From?
Munday has declined to go into detail about those who have tested positive for the virus in Imperial County, saying during his March 28 press conference that the sample set is too small and the privacy of those who test positive could be compromised.
He has continued to not be specific with ages and sexes, and has not grouped local results into subgroups publicly like other agencies have.
For example, we know the elderly are being hit hard in the U.S., but a surprisingly fast-rising group are people aged 18 to 44, according to the CDC.
But anecdotally, we can see some of the places the virus might be coming from in the community as agencies and businesses reveal they have had either employees or people they serve come down with COVID, exposing an untold number of others to the virus.
In addition to the confirmed positive cases from local healthcare providers and both El Centro Regional Medical Center and Pioneers Memorial Healthcare District in Brawley, there are other locations and potential identifiers that have been made public.
There have been press releases from Brawley Elementary School District alerting the community that Witter Elementary School staff had been exposed. There has been a press release from Central Union High School District informing that a Southwest High School staff member had been infected.
Calexico Unified School District informed the public that two district employees had confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 in a March 29 press release.
In-N-Out Burger restaurant’s corporate office confirmed it had an employee in the El Centro restaurant test positive.
In Other Local COVID Developments
Meanwhile, Public Health announced March 31 that Munday’s health order, which was to remain in place through the 31st and re-evaluated, had been extended indefinitely.
The order states what essential businesses can remain open, including gas stations; pharmacies; food services such as grocery stores, farmers markets, food banks, convenience stores, take-out, and delivery restaurants; banks; laundromats/laundry services; and essential state and local government functions will also remain open.
The order also reiterated that the following businesses must remain closed until further notice: dine-in restaurants; bars and nightclubs; entertainment venues; gyms and fitness studios; public events and gatherings; convention centers; and hair and nail salons.
Additionally, the Imperial County Office of Education confirmed April 1 that all local schools would remain closed through the end of the 2019-2020 school year. The academic year ends in June.
ICOE said distance learning would continue throughout Imperial County, but the physical school locations would not reopen before the end of the term.
This story is featured in the April 2, 2020 e-Edition.