RIVERSIDE (CNS) – Riverside County’s public health officer today acknowledged that coronavirus cases are now growing at a much slower rate, telling the Board of Supervisors that “targeted” removals of restrictions tied to the COVID-19 emergency may continue in the coming weeks.
“Overall, the (growth) trend is blunting,” Dr. Cameron Kaiser said during the board’s meeting. “It’s possible that restrictions can be relaxed or modified without losing protection.”
The health officer joined several colleagues from the county’s Emergency Operations Center in highlighting trends and data points that reflected more positive than negative developments.
Emergency Management Director Bruce Barton said only about half of the county’s hospital beds were occupied, though two-thirds of intensive care unit beds were full. Ventilator usage for respiratory failures stemming from COVID-19 and other hospitalizations were at one-third capacity.
Projections by Kaiser and other Riverside University Health System officials from earlier this month predicted far broader burdens on health care resources by this time because of the virus.
“We continue to look at reasonable targeted (changes) we can make (to the slate of virus-related restrictions in place),” the doctor said. “There are means for the public to have as much normal life as possible. I don’t want to minimize the sacrifices people have made. We’re not being unnecessarily restrictive.”
People who addressed the board telephonically and in person under social distancing guidelines generally expressed frustration with the ongoing controls on public interactions and free movement. One caller characterized the county and state emergency orders as akin to an authoritarian “lockdown” and pleaded for the board to engage in “baseline adult behavior” by lifting prohibitions against everyday business operations.
The caller said it was unjust to categorize “essential” and “non-essential” businesses, with the latter under restrictions handed down in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s March 19 executive order.
Board Chairman Manuel Perez replied that changes were taking place, referring to the health officer’s and county chief executive officer’s joint decision Monday to permit golf courses to reopen, with players limited to four per group and observing six-feet-apart social distancing requirements.
Perez also said the allowance of “drive-in” church services, specified under a revised order signed by Newsom on Friday, was another move in the right direction. Kaiser had abridged church activity in an order issued earlier this month. A federal civil liberties lawsuit was filed against the county because of it.
“Things are getting better,” Perez said, and Supervisor Chuck Washington agreed, saying that while the county was “not out of the woods yet, we’re starting to see light at the end of the tunnel.”
Supervisor Jeff Hewitt questioned the need to continue to require the use of face masks, expressing doubt about their effectiveness. Kaiser, who noted that by his order Riverside County was among the first jurisdictions in the state to mandate usage, agreed that the masks “may not provide much protection” under various conditions.
“But there may be a large portion of the population who may have minimal or no (COVID-19) symptoms,” the health officer said. “So we’re reducing the possibility of exposure (with the masks). But that does not replace social distancing to prevent transmission.”
The financial consequences of the health crisis remain undetermined, but county Chief Financial Officer Don Kent admitted being stunned by the “speed of the impact.”
“It’s unprecedented,” he said, indicating that early projections show the county losing $30 million in revenue in the current fiscal year and likely $50 million in 2020-21. However, the CFO said the situation is fluid, and the board should brace for a potential significant downturn in property tax income — the county’s largest source of discretionary funding.