The regulatory bar may be lowered further next week in Riverside County, with high expectations that the county will be moved out of red and into the orange tier of the governor’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy” framework, officials told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.
“Our numbers are looking good, and we are tracking potentially to move into the orange tier,” county Department of Public Health Director Kim Saruwatari said.
She said steadily declining case rates — the county is now at a six- month low for overall coronavirus positivity, at 2.3% — and the near overstock of SARS-Cov-2 vaccination doses have positioned the county for tier reassignment.
The California Department of Public Health gave the county red tier classification on March 16.
That change paved the way for indoor operations to resume in restaurants and movie theaters, limited to 25% capacity, or 100 people, whichever is less. Museums, zoos and aquariums were also given the go-ahead for up to 25% capacity, while gyms and fitness centers are supposed to adhere to a 10% capacity cap. Retail stores and shopping malls can operate at 50% capacity.
Under the orange tier, capacity limits for the majority of indoor businesses are raised to 50%, though 25% capacity caps would remain for some establishments, especially where physical activity is higher, such as gyms, bowling alleys and amusement parks. Bars are to remain restricted to outdoor service.
Supervisor Jeff Hewitt questioned whether the so-called “California variant” of COVID-19, identified earlier this month, could pose a risk to reopening and lead to another wave of infections, similar to what transpired in December.
“There’s no solid evidence of increased hospitalizations and deaths (associated) with this variant,” Saruwatari said.
She acknowledged there are “lots of theories out there” of what could occur in the event of widespread community transmission, given that the variant appears to have a higher degree of contagiousness, but at this point, there are no indications that another surge may develop, the public health director said.
According to Saruwatari, 63.8% of the county’s 65-and-over population has now been at least partially vaccinated, while 44.2% has received the full immunization dosage.
County Public Health Officer Dr. Geoffrey Leung noted that beginning Thursday, CDPH guidelines lower vaccination eligibility to 50 years old, and starting April 15, anyone 16 years or older will be eligible.
The issue of potential mandatory vaccination for school children and its legal implications was raised by Annette Hagner, Riverside County spokeswoman for Los Angeles-based Children’s Health Defense, operated by attorney Robert Kennedy Jr.
The nonprofit has raised questions and concerns about the efficacy and unknown longer-term side-effects of the Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
“We are not anti-vaccination, but we do not want mandatory vaccination with what are still investigational and experimental drugs,” she told the board. “Mandates are illegal with emergency use authorization products, including the COVID vaccines. They’re not FDA-approved. We are concerned for our community on this issue, and particularly our kids. Many schools are already doing forced (COVID-19) testing.”
Hagner asked for the board to take a position on superintendents of school districts potentially trying to impose vaccination mandates.
“We want to know how the board will protect families and their rights,” she said.
The supervisors did not address the issue directly, though board Chair Karen Spiegel noted in a previous meeting and acknowledged during Tuesday’s that the board has no intention or authority to interfere with what area school boards decide.
Leung said vaccination availability has reached the point that some clinics are welcoming walk-in appointments. The Palm Springs Convention Center mass vaccination site and a few other locations are describing the no- appointment vaccinations as “giveaways,” available this week.
Appointments at county-designated sites can be made via http://www.rivcoph.org/COVID-19-Vaccine, or by calling the county’s 211 help line.
According to county CEO Jeff Van Wagenen, on Wednesday, public health officials will ceremonially administer the one millionth SARS-Cov-2 immunization dose in the county.
The ceremony is scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Chatigny Senior Community Center, 1310 Oak Valley Parkway, Beaumont.