Supervisors, county staff urge ongoing safeguards to combat COVID-19

RIVERSIDE (CNS) – The Board of Supervisors and county emergency management staff today urged residents to continue observing stern precautionary measures amid the novel coronavirus threat, which requires people to make sacrifices and give up what “they’re used to,” one supervisor said.

The board called on staff at the outset of the meeting — the first held since the governing body’s calendar was changed on March 17 to promote COVID-19 safeguards against public gatherings — for an overview of ongoing efforts to mitigate the virus’ impact countywide.

County Public Health Officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser told the board that, as of Tuesday, the county had the fourth-highest number of infections in California, with 946 confirmed COVID-19 cases, underscoring the need to “mitigate as much as possible” in the face of a possible viral “surge.”

“There have been an estimated 10,000 COVID-19 tests performed in Riverside County,” Kaiser said. “Sustained transmission is possible (by those who may not be presenting symptoms). Wearing face covers is necessary. There are risks to essential workers by the public, and they to the public.”

Every member of the board donned either a bandana, surgical mask or similar article to shield their breathing orifices for the meeting. The number of people permitted to gather inside the board chamber was fewer than three dozen, in a room with capacity for nearly 10 times that number.

The Office of the County Clerk made telephonic public comments available, and roughly 10 people called in for the opportunity to speak, mainly addressing their concerns about the availability of public assistance for the unemployed, indigent and homeless during the virus crisis.

Supervisor Chuck Washington remained sequestered in his office, interacting with his colleagues via telephone, in what he said last month was a heightened precautionary measure due to his age.

Last week, Kaiser amended his prior public health directive, which the board granted him authority to do under a local health emergency proclamation, declaring that all residents should utilize masks or other face coverings when conducting daily affairs outside their homes. Previously, Kaiser’s edict dealt only with social distancing and public gatherings.

“As the religious holidays approach, I urge communities of faith to take every advantage of the technology available to them,” the doctor said. “As more and more Riverside County residents come into compliance with the order, we could start to see changes as early as next week.”

Kaiser acknowledged that the “long hypothesized surge” that received so much attention locally and nationally may not be as pervasive as previously believed, but will rather stem from infections within “long-term care and skilled nursing facilities.”

“Infections may mount in those environments,” he said. “I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say there are multiple hot spots. We are still in containment mode, and we are still in the fight.”

COVID-19 infections have not yet overtaxed the county’s ICU bed capacity, county Department of Public Health Director Kim Saruwatari said, but she predicted the “coming weeks will be bad.”

Emergency Management Director Bruce Barton told the board that the real surge at the moment was a “socioeconomic” one resulting from unemployment and other hardships connected to the coronavirus emergency.

According to Barton, the county has seen 4,600 new CalFresh and 2,600 new MediCal applications in the last several weeks, as more residents seek aid to address food insecurity and loss of insurance coverage.

Barton said the county stands ready to assist 420 food pantries and handle “resource requests” tied to sheltering of the homeless.

He said a priority is to acquire more N95 masks and respiratory ventilators, but the pipeline is plugged. According to the EMD director, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has taken over handling orders for ventilators, and the county’s first order for shipments was denied for unspecified reasons. Another order is pending.

Supervisor Karen Spiegel said containment of the virus can be achieved within the county, but it will require adhering to the heightened precautions.

“People think we’re over-panicking everybody,” the supervisor said. “But if you don’t take action, you will have family members exposed to this. People in all kinds of facilities, people everywhere are at risk if we don’t continue to follow the basics.”

She stressed that frequent hand-washing, wearing face covers and social distancing were of inestimable importance.

“I know the religious holidays are coming up, and I’m Jewish,” Spiegel said. “You don’t have to give up your faith, but you’ll miss what you’re used to this one year. Because what is the alternative, and is that better? We’ll get through this.”