Shoppers can be seen making their way to Walmart on June 2. Although stay-at-home orders and other protective health measures are still in place and COVID cases continue to surge in Imperial County, county officials are hoping a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom will allow more latitude with opening up businesses in the Valley. | CORISSA IBARRA PHOTO
IMPERIAL COUNTY — Although Imperial County is far from meeting state-mandated COVID infection rates, one county supervisor thinks “we have to learn to live with it” and that the time has come for the governor to return decision-making to local public health and government officials.
Despite a continued surge in the number of local novel coronavirus infections that has yet to peak, Imperial County District 4 Supervisor Ryan Kelley thinks the county’s inability to stabilize its rates of infection is “out of our control” and hopes Gov. Gavin Newsom can recognize this and restore the same type of “localism” and local control to Imperial County officials that he has ceded to 48 other California counties, which continue to return to some semblance of normalcy.
Kelley said with Mexicali residents with U.S. citizenship or essential travel documents coming and going, San Diego County opening further and more lax standards in neighboring Arizona, conditions don’t allow for Imperial County to meet the state criteria to move deeper into the so-called state Roadmap to Recovery.
“We’d like to submit a variance report to Sacramento (showing we have met the criteria to open further), but conditions don’t allow that. It’s out of our control,” Kelley said June 2.
“I request this board send a letter to the governor to let us open up,” he said. “Our community for nine weeks has been following everything asked of us.”
But, Kelley said, Imperial County is at the mercy of many factors surrounding our isolated community, including internal factors that necessitate “personal responsibility.”
Speaking directly to the public during the June 2 county board meeting, Kelley said, “You make that choice to go to a pool party, or an assembly, or to not wear a mask.”
He added it’s time to explain to Newsom “who and where we are,” and that his office “can’t tell the public it’s a local control issue and then fail to honor that” here.
Surging COVID-19 conditions in Imperial County are not “going away anytime soon. We have to learn to live with it,” Kelley said. “This (letter) needs to be sent now, as soon as possible.”
The letter was sent out June 3, according to county Public Information Officer Linsey Dale. Kelley asked it be sent out without the Public Health Department’s “variance report,” but county executive staff suggested the report be included even if it does not meet the state’s criteria to move further into the state roadmap.
The State of COVID in the County
True to form as in past holidays, such as Mother’s Day (May 10), El Centro Regional Medical Center officials reported a surge in COVID-positive cases some seven to 10 days following Memorial Day weekend, which was commemorated May 23-25.
On June 3, ECRMC Chief Executive Officer Adolphe Edward said a surge of patients began June 2 that required numerous transfers by REACH and Mercy air ambulance to more acute-care facilities outside Imperial County.
He said there were a total of 98 patients — 43 of whom were COVID positive — in the hospital as of midday June 3, including 11 intensive-care unit patients.
Additionally, ECRMC officials confirmed what appears to be the first COVID-related death of a frontline healthcare worker.
“It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of Adan Maldonado from the medical-imaging division. Adan passed away on Monday (June 1). He had been a valued member of our team since September 2011 and will be greatly missed,” Edward said during a Facebook Live update. “Please keep Adan’s family in your thoughts as they go through this difficult time. The family wishes to thank all of Adan’s colleagues and everyone who was by his side assisting him in his care.”
Maldonado died in the El Centro hospital, confirmed Chief Strategy Officer Cathy Kennerson.
Hospital officials confirmed that contact-tracing investigators determined Maldonado did not contract the virus while at work.
Edward said a memorial honoring the life of Maldonado, who was reportedly an ultrasound technician, will be set up in the hospital’s lobby at 7 p.m. June 9.
Total COVID patient count in Imperial County between El Centro and Brawley’s Pioneers Memorial Hospital was 60 COVID patients as of June 3, with 17 in the ICUs. Twenty-nine ventilators were in use Valley-wide.
While Edward described a nonspecific number of transfers outside Imperial County from El Centro Regional on June 3, as of June 1, county Emergency Medical Services Agency officials confirmed some 200 individuals have been transported out of the area via air or ground ambulance to other acute-care hospitals around the region since May 19.
“It has slowed in the last few days, but transfers continue to occur,” county EMSA Medical Director Dr. Kathy Staats said June 1.
She added that after a full week of operation, seven people were recovering in the Imperial Valley College Federal Medical Station, which she said had been renamed an “Alternative Care Site,” in keeping with other such sites around the state. She said as of June 1, three people had been discharged from the short-term facility.
Cases of COVID in Imperial County have yet to peak, with Imperial County Public Health Director, Dr. Stephen Munday, reporting June 2 that he expects the Memorial Day surge to extend past a seven- to 10-day period, and possibly into 14 days, due to what has been previously witnessed with incubation periods for the virus.
“We feel we are still on the upswing of our epidemiological curve,” Munday said.
Imperial County passed the 1,000-mark for active cases, as of 10:30 a.m. June 3, with 1,010 active COVID cases. There have been some 2,025 total positive cases so far, 986 recoveries, a total of 12,700 patients tested, and 29 deaths. The number of deaths has been holding at 29 since 9 a.m. June 1, so it wasn’t immediately known if Maldonado’s death at ECRMC is considered No. 29 or an as-yet unaccounted No. 30.
That number should be updated in the next day or so to include El Centro Police Officer Efren Coronel, who died June 3 in a San Diego-area hospital from COVID complications.
Although the rate of COVID hospitalizations per 100,000 residents can vary greatly from day to day due to a smaller number of county residents, Munday said Imperial County is still consistently high on the list.
As of June 1, Munday stated the county was still No. 1 with 40.1 hospitalized patients per 100,000 residents. That ranking dropped several places just a day later, according to the state Public Health Department website.
Testing Capacity and Vulnerable Populations
Even as the county board seeks state approval to open more businesses in Imperial County, including those businesses firmly established in higher-risk areas of Stage 2 and Stage 3 of the roadmap, like barbershops, hair salons, fitness centers and dine-in eateries, county officials push to get more people tested for COVID to get a handle on the numbers.
The county is requesting more “local” control over what it can and cannot open despite being far from achieving state metrics for “epidemiological stability,” or the ability for local containment of the virus.
The percentage of those testing positive for COVID-19 over a seven-day period remains extremely high. Whereas the state is requiring 8 percent or fewer over a seven-day period, Imperial County was at 24.57 percent as of June 3.
Increased testing is proving a blessing and a curse. Often increased numbers of tests have resulted in lower percentages, yet in Imperial County, the opposite has been seen, Supervisors’ Chairman Luis Plancarte has said previously.
Munday earlier in the week said Imperial County was utilizing its single state-funded OptumServe testing site that recently moved and opened in Calexico on June 1 to 85 percent of its capacity, qualifying the county to receive a second state-funded site, which opened in Veterans’ Memorial Hall in Imperial on June 3.
County Environmental Health Director Jeff Lamoure, who has been coordinating with OptumServe, said the second site greatly increases Imperial County’s daily testing capabilities. He said what was around a testing capacity of 400 a couple of weeks ago increased to 550 tests per day as of June 2, which he indicated would increase to a capacity of 682 tests a day as of June 3.
Some Imperial County residents were reporting backlogs of appointments at the first OptumServe site and a diminished number of available tests at local providers’ offices.
Munday, however, disputed that local testing capabilities were in anyway being overrun during a press conference June 1. He said the Public Health Department was able to get testing samples to San Diego County labs for processing when needed.
Lamoure did confirm that there was about a week and a half wait to get an appointment at the initial OptumServe site as of June 1. One of the reasons that could be happening, Munday said, is because that is where Imperial County officials were sending some staff to get tested who are serving “vulnerable populations” like jail inmates and those at skilled nursing facilities.
There is a push to address a growing number of infections among the vulnerable populations. “We’re aggressively testing people” going into skilled nursing facilities, both workers and patients, Munday said. He indicated that while infections had previously not presented themselves at skilled nursing facilities like other areas of the country, that has begun to change here. He also said there has been more of an emphasis to test jail inmates and jail staff.
In terms of available data for vulnerable populations, 23 jail inmates and 10 jail staff members have tested positive, two nursing facility patients and eight staff members have tested positive and four homeless individuals have tested positive for the virus, public health spokesperson Andrea Bowers confirmed June 2.
Messaging and Personal Responsibility
One of the key pieces of logic behind Ryan Kelley’s desire to get Newsom to return some local control over the decision-making process is the need for personal responsibility, something fundamentality lacking throughout the region as locals watch counties and states around us — and their residents — move more freely.
Local officials can only remind Imperial County residents so often that stay-in-place orders, requirements to socially distance and requirements to wear face coverings remain in place.
While Chairman Plancarte acknowledged the “county and its people have done everything they can to make the criteria and metrics,” he said, “No way can we make those numbers if you don’t change your social distancing and your practices.
“The moment you leave (home) and go do your own thing … and move like nothing is happening,” he said, “you ruin everything we’re trying to do.
“We need your help,” Plancarte implored.
County Public Health Director Janette Angulo took it even further when she said there has been a team of public information officers at public health sending out “messages” in multiple formats and languages since February, including through websites, social media, radio, print, video, live in-person presentations in outlying areas, weekly press conferences, and more.
Yet it’s all for naught without public accountability and responsibility, she said. “What you do after work matters,” Angulo added. Employers can do extra sanitizing, require masks and social distancing, “but those workers have to do that, too, outside.”