Southern California counties are in general agreement about the need for adjustments in how the state is applying COVID-19 public health regulations, Riverside County Executive Officer George Johnson said Tuesday, but a unified approach in addressing state mandates is not on the immediate horizon.
“We settled on several key issues,” Johnson told the Board of Supervisors during a discussion on coronavirus mitigation strategies. “The moving median testing target, we collectively all agreed, should be fixed.”
The California Department of Public Health, under Dr. Mark Ghaly, has been changing the testing target number on a monthly basis. In the first half of October, the threshold for large counties was 239.1 per 100,000 people. According to county Department of Public Health Director Kim Saruwatari, it is now 272.41, meaning some counties that previously met or exceeded coronavirus screening objectives are penalized under the governor’s color-coded tiered system.
Supervisors Kevin Jeffries and Karen Spiegel have complained that the state has been continually “moving the goal post,” making it nearly impossible for the county to advance in the regulatory scheme.
The CDPH has said the changes reflect the state’s fluid response to coronavirus case rates.
Johnson’s teleconference meeting with the chief executives of the other counties in the region stemmed from a proposal by Spiegel, unanimously approved by the board on Oct. 27, to have the Executive Office engage surrounding counties about forming a coalition that negotiates with the governor and the CDPH for modifications to the tier structure.
The county is currently in the most restrictive purple tier, after roughly a month in the less restrictive red tier. Restaurants, churches, offices, gyms and other entities that had been permitted to open with limited indoor activity were required to close again after the county was reclassified.
Johnson said there are strong feelings that the state should recognize hospital capacity as a credit in designating counties under the tier system. As long as counties have ample capacity to treat COVID-19 patients, as well as other patients, the state should consider granting a “bonus” in grading counties’ mitigation efforts, according to the CEO.
“Protecting our health care system is a bonus factor,” he said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the color-coded plan in August to replace the multi-phase public health de-regulation strategy originally established at the end of April.
In addition to purple and red, the tier system has two other color bands — orange and yellow — that reflect how a county is managing coronavirus impacts. Yellow would translate to removal of all barriers and control of the virus.
“What’s the logic, or lack of, that’s going on?” Spiegel asked. “Colleges can play football, but our youth can’t? Players can go to gyms, but nobody else can? There’s favoritism. Our (COVID-19) cases are increasing, but it’s not a big increase, especially in our death rate. The largest number of people dying have underlying symptoms. I’m still looking for numbers justifying how decisions are being made by the state.”
The supervisor repeated that the regulatory framework has “put a nail in the coffin of our businesses.”
“We need to get back to balance,” she said. “We have stepped too far into emotional, mental and financial health. I’m having a hard time with this.”
Jeffries agreed, saying there was no rationale for allowing stores to remain open “so people can buy alcohol and cannabis,” while churches are closed, and people cannot congregate for services.
“Somebody just picked this is how we’re going to go along,” he said.
Supervisor Jeff Hewitt said he believed as “herd immunity” spreads in the population because more people come into contact with the virus or traces of it and develop natural defenses, conditions will improve.
“We can’t stop this thing, but hopefully we can live with it,” he said.
According to Johnson, the objective is for counties to cooperate and draft a “white paper” outlining what adjustments should be made to the tier system to make it more fair.
“Counties are unique,” Jeffries replied. “Treating Riverside County like the Bay Area or Los Angeles is just absurd.”
There was no timetable for when the paper might be composed and submitted to the state. Johnson said additional meetings with counties are planned. Once he retires in mid-December, interim CEO Juan Perez will take over the task, the CEO said.
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