Northern California Counties Once Spared By COVID-19 Now Seeing Cases Surge

As the coronavirus pandemic wanes across California, a handful of counties along the northernmost edge of the state that were spared the worst of last year’s surge are now seeing an alarming rise in cases driven by the spread of variants and deep-rooted resistance to vaccines.

With the states June 15 target for reopening in view, that could be cause for concern.

“Right now, Shasta County is a red tier county in a sea of orange and yellow counties,” said Kerri Schuette, program manager of the county’s public health department, referring to California’s color-coded assessment of risk levels. “We still have a very high case rate.”

As of Friday, Shasta County reported a seven-day average of 9.1 new daily COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents and a testing positivity rate of 3.7%, four times the statewide rate of 0.9%.

Fourteen people were hospitalized in the county with COVID, the most since March 3, Schuette said.

“Last summer we were worried about people coming in from other areas of the state with high case rates to enjoy our rivers, mountains and lakes,” she said. “At this point, our case rate is one of the highest in California.”

The numbers are even starker in neighboring Siskiyou County, which has an average of 10.4 new COVID cases per 100,000 residents over the past week and a testing positivity rate of 6.5%, according to state data. Out of the 27 coronavirus deaths reported in the county since the pandemic began more than a year ago, five have occurred since May 6.

Del Norte County, in California’s northwestern corner, also has an average of 10.4 new cases a day per 100,000 people, with a positivity rate of 2.4%. Both metrics are also far worse than the state averages in Humboldt County, just to the south of Del Norte, and Modoc County on the state’s northeastern border.

By comparison, Los Angeles County — the one-time epicenter of California’s COVID crisis — is reporting an average of 1.8 new daily cases per 100,000 people and a 0.4% positivity rate.

Warren Rehwaldt, the public health officer in Del Norte County, said the numbers there started heading up in February.

“We tied that to what was happening to counties in southern Oregon,” he said. “They were experiencing a surge and it spilled over to us.”

Case counts have continued to rise since then, with many new infections driven by aggressive variants that may be reaching the northern part of the state for the first time. They include B.1.1.7, the mutation first discovered in the United Kingdom.

“It’s unfortunate timing because the virus is more transmissible at the moment,” Rehwaldt said.

There are cultural indicators at play as well, health officials say. Many residents in the rural counties never embraced pandemic restrictions and ignored them altogether after Northern California fared well through the initial statewide surge.

“The people who are not interested in wearing masks stopped a long time ago,” said Schuette, who added that many local businesses never abided by restrictions. Shasta County has remained in the red tier, the second-most-restrictive, for the past 12 weeks despite the state’s loosening of requirements to advance.

“Our concern as a public health department is that once June 15 arrives people will think, ‘We are done, and the virus is gone,’” Schuette said.

California will drop capacity and social-distancing orders on its reopening day, including the mask mandate for vaccinated people in almost all settings — a near-total lifting of restrictions that have been in place for more than a year.

“It seems a bit abrupt to eliminate the tiers like that,” Rehwaldt said. “It might have some unplanned effects.”

Although California has overall high vaccination rates — 63% of the eligible population is at least partially vaccinated — the uptake in the northern counties has been slower.

Del Norte County’s public health department had clinics set up to deliver 300 to 400 shots a day, but Rehwaldt said demand never approached that. A little over half of county residents have received at least one dose.

“We’ve hit a plateau,” Rehwaldt said. “The demand is not there.”

In San Francisco, nearly 80% of residents over 12 have received at least one dose, and 65% are fully vaccinated.

“We just dream about those kinds of rates,” Rehwaldt said. “We have just enough people who are hesitant or outright not participating in vaccination for this virus.”

In Shasta County, a little more than 40% of those eligible for shots are at least partially vaccinated, Schuette said, about the same as in Modoc and Siskiyou counties. The counties do not have the resources to track vaccinations locally and depend on state data.

Humboldt County’s tracker shows about 40% of the total population fully vaccinated, and another 9% having received partial doses.

“Just like anywhere else, we had people who wanted to be first in line and we have the people who say they will never, ever get it,” Schuette said. “Then we have the people who are on the fence and want to wait and see what happens.”

Despite the numbers, health officials are upbeat about the reopening’s effect on the northern counties.

“We’re not ignoring the fact that we can have a big outbreak,” Rehwaldt said. “But for small counties, even a few cases can be magnified when you look at the rates. We take that with a grain of salt. Our experience over the pandemic has been milder overall.”

Schuette said the one positive outcome of Shasta County residents balking at the state’s pandemic restrictions is that the transition to no restrictions will not feel as precipitous.

“I really don’t think it’s going to be a steep drop,” she said.

As for vaccinations, Schuette said, “the challenge is convincing the public to do it not because the government says to do it, but because scientists say this is how we’re going to help ourselves and each other. We’re painted as government. But we’re public health. We don’t have political skin in the game. Our interest has been stopping the spread of the virus.”


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