Board Declares Health Emergency Connected to Coronavirus

Ceci Partridge

Riverside County supervisors Tuesday formally ratified a local public health emergency declaration stemming from novel coronavirus cases in the county, directing key agencies to initiate efforts to mitigate potential impacts of the virus.

The Board of Supervisors’ action was required after county Public Health Officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser unilaterally issued a countywide health emergency Sunday. His order could legally only last one week.

“At this point, our strategy is mitigation,” Kaiser told the board. “We need to prevent our medical facilities from being overloaded. For the majority of people, (coronavirus) will be an unpleasant nuisance. But for the elderly and the immuno-compromised (who may become infected), there will need to be more extensive care.”

The local emergency declaration provides means for the county to marshal resources that can be dedicated to containing coronavirus, relying on state and federal aid. Agencies empowered to take the helm in developing containment strategies are the Department of Public Health and Emergency Management Department, with further coordination among other units.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s March 4 statewide emergency declaration established guidelines for counties and municipalities to follow.

“We have centralized coordination and response,” Department of Public Health Director Kim Saruwatari said. “Our priority is to protect the public. We’re doing everything we can to stop the spread.”

She noted that information campaigns are getting underway to answer questions from individuals and businesses, and she said recommended protocols have been provided to correctional facilities and other county operations regarding how to prevent viral transmission.

“We are all-hands-on-deck here,” EMD Director Bruce Barton told the board. “We need support to make sure people are receiving trusted sources of information. Don’t necessarily pay attention to what’s going on in the social media market.”

Supervisor Karen Spiegel expressed concern about the ripple effects on businesses, particularly when large conferences are canceled due to fears about viral exposure.

The department heads hoped that as information campaigns kick into high-gear, groups planning big events will have better knowledge about risks and limitations.

“We’re developing guidance on large gatherings,” Kaiser said. “We hope the economic impacts on the county will be blunted. But people should realize there will be impacts, and those are unavoidable.”

He stressed that a public health emergency does not translate into a blanket strategy to quarantine every person who may have been in contact with another individual who likely was exposed.

“We don’t quarantine contacts of contacts,” the doctor said. “And we don’t test people who are asymptomatic.”

Many patients will do fine recovering from a viral infection at home, Kaiser said.

He said Monday that the three new COVID-19 infections surfaced after the county’s first was confirmed over the weekend. Two patients are self- quarantined in their homes, while the third is undergoing treatment at a Coachella Valley hospital. None were identified.

Kaiser did not specify whether any of the individuals had been in contact with a person now in isolation at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage receiving treatment for the virus.

“It is now considered a case of `community spread,”‘ according to a Riverside University Health System statement. “Community spread involves transmission of an illness for which the source of infection is unknown. It indicates that the virus was not contracted through relevant travel history or contact to a known case of COVID-19, and suggests that the virus is present in the community.”

Kaiser urged precautions, particularly for people with underlying conditions, such as seniors who may be in compromised health or HIV carriers. The doctor said avoiding large gatherings and limiting non-essential travel would be good steps. He also asked individuals who develop suspect symptoms to stay away from others.

Two county residents were diagnosed with coronavirus while under quarantine aboard a Diamond Princess cruise liner anchored in Northern California. But those individuals were infected while traveling and not in Southern California, according to health officials.

Meanwhile, test results for a Murrieta Valley High School employee under self-quarantine for coronavirus came back negative Monday, and officials announced classes will resume Wednesday.

The school was shuttered Monday, and district officials had intended to keep it closed until lab test results on the employee, who traveled to a location where coronavirus was present and became ill, were vetted.

The Coachella Valley developments led to the cancellation of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, which was scheduled to begin this week. The annual tennis tournament is considered the sport’s second-most important event in the United States after the U.S. Open in New York. It may be rescheduled.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 100,000 coronavirus cases have been documented globally, the vast majority in China, where it originated. Close to 4,000 people have died — most in China, officials said. About 500 infections — including 150 in California — have been recorded in the U.S., two dozen of which have been fatal.

By contrast, according to the CDC, there have been about 20,000 deaths stemming from flu-related complications nationwide since the start of influenza season in September.

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