SAN DIEGO – San Diego County might soon find itself off a state coronavirus monitoring list, effectively starting a clock for when local schools can consider reopening for in-person instruction, county public health officials said Thursday.
The county reported its second straight day with a case count under 100 for every 100,000 residents, a key metric being watched by state officials in containing the spread of the virus. If it records a third straight day Friday, the county comes off the list and a new 14-day window begins, after which San Diego would be able to allow in-classroom instruction to resume.
The earliest date that could happen is Aug. 28, said Dr. Wilma Wooten, the county’s public health officer. Additionally, 48 elementary schools have filed waivers with the county to return to school early.
“On Saturday, we will begin the countdown, day one of a 14-day period,” Wooten said. “After Friday, Aug. 28, San Diego County schools should be able to open and this is K-12. They should be able to open to in-person education at their discretion.”
Even so, officials continued to urge vigilance. County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said county officials want to “avoid the seesaw of up and down, open and close.”
To do that, Fletcher said the county needs to see “sustained periods where we’ve lowered the community spread.”
“The goal of our exercise is not to get off the state monitoring list and get the case count below that,” Fletcher said. “The goal is to have it remain below that. We have to avoid the temptation or the mindset that if tomorrow’s numbers are under 100, somehow we’ve made it and we’re done, we can go back to normal.”
He added, “That is the same mindset that created the significant surge and spike we saw at the outset.”
State mandates on which businesses are allowed to have indoor operations would not change, Fletcher said, until the county gets more information from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office. No other businesses can reopen after the 17 days unless the state provides further guidance.
Most of the county’s local districts have announced reopening plans in recent weeks with some students already returning to class in distance learning formats. At least one — the Poway Unified School District, the county’s third-largest system — has said it will remain fully virtual through the end of the year regardless of county guidance to minimize uncertainty for students and staff.
At El Cajon’s Grossmont Union High School District, the year began completely virtually on Monday. The district has mapped out a phased return to campus, allowing some students to attend in-person classes at least part-time in the second of its five-level plan, which ramps up until all students return on a full-time basis.
On Thursday, county officials reported 266 new cases of COVID-19 and seven more deaths, bringing the local tally to 33,659 cases and 615 deaths. In total, the U.S. has recorded more than 5.2 million cases of the virus and 166,483 deaths.
Of the 8,020 new tests reported to the county Wednesday, 3% were new positive cases, bringing the county’s 14-day rolling average of positive cases down to 4.6%. The county and its health partners are reporting an average of nearly 8,000 tests per day and soon will surpass a cumulative total of 700,000 tests since the pandemic broke out earlier this year.
Ninety-six percent of the total deaths reported in the county have been in individuals with underlying medical conditions; 26 of the 615 deaths have had none. According to the county, the five most common underlying conditions among the deceased are: hypertension, diabetes, cardiac disease, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, and chronic kidney disease.
Two new community setting outbreaks were confirmed on Wednesday at a business and a food processing setting, respectively. With 22 such outbreaks in the past week — half of which have been identified in business settings — it remains above the county’s trigger number for modifying the local public health order.
There are 59 active community outbreaks in the county tied to 1,389 cases and 11 deaths.
Latinos are still disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, with that ethnic group representing 61.3% of all hospitalizations and 45.4% of all deaths due to the illness. Latinos make up about 35% of San Diego County’s population.
A new COVID-19 testing site began operating Wednesday at the San Ysidro Port of Entry PedEast crossing, and County Supervisor Greg Cox cited its immediate success and demand for it, saying its hours would expand Thursday.
The free testing site will now operate from 6:30 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday and will focus on testing essential workers and American citizens who live in Tijuana, according to San Diego County health officials.
No appointments are necessary at the walk-up site, which aims to offer about 200 tests daily. People getting tested will not be asked about their immigration status or who lives with them, health officials said.
“We know that communities in South Bay have been hit the hardest by COVID-19,” said Wooten. “The location was selected because of the increase in cases in the region and the number of people, especially essential workers who cross daily.”
Fletcher said Tuesday that the county’s partnerships with its 18 incorporated communities were allowing law enforcement to step up efforts to punish egregious violators of public health orders.
A visit from county staff is the first action used, followed by a cease-and-desist order and then an order to close. If an entity refuses to close after that order, it will be cited and fined $1,000 — as University Heights gym Boulevard Fitness was on Tuesday, Fletcher said.
“The selfish defiance of the public health orders only hurts those acting in good faith,” he said. “This is not out of a desire to be punitive.”