County inches closer to dropping off state’s COVID-19 watch list

Garry Julian works out outdoors at Last Real Gym in North Park on Thursday.
Garry Julian works out outdoors at Last Real Gym in North Park on Thursday. With gyms ordered closed, the fitness center moved their operations outdoors.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Officials caution that progress could be short-lived if public fails to wear masks, social distance


San Diego County recorded its second day under 100 coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents Thursday. One more day, and the region should fall from the state’s COVID-19 watch list.

It is what everyone has been waiting for since July when rapidly-rising case totals put the county on the list, forcing many businesses to begin operating outdoors and churches to stop holding indoor services.

Though leaving the list appeared imminent Thursday, local officials worked to temper expectations, noting that resuming indoor activities is at the state’s discretion and, with the exception of school districts, the governor has not yet said how long he will wait to lift restrictions for those who manage to keep their numbers of new cases within the bounds his administration has set.

County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said during a COVID-19 briefing that local public health leadership has been in contact with state officials to learn more about the process for lifting restrictions, but so far has not received specific answers.

“If we get additional guidance, which we could get, we will certainly share that,” Fletcher said.

Meanwhile, he added, San Diego County best not screw this up.

People pass by the American Comedy Club Co. in downtown San Diego on Thursday.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

This is not, leaders stressed, the kind of news that should have residents ripping off their masks. The most-watched number in San Diego since Tony Gwynn’s batting average must stay below 100 for 17 straight days for schools serving grades 7 to 12 to reopen, and businesses and churches are not likely to reopen for long if everyone abandons discipline to party like they used to.

“We have to avoid the temptation or mindset that, if we’re done, we can go back to normal,” Fletcher said. “We want to avoid the seesaw of up and down, open and closed and, in order to do that, we need to see sustained periods of time where we have lowered the community spread.”

And the numbers are still not quite where the county health department would like them to be. County health investigators confirmed two more community outbreaks Wednesday — one at a business and one at a food processing plant. They bring the total number of community outbreaks, defined as three or more cases from different households present in the same location at roughly the same time, confirmed over the past seven days to 22, three times the number identified as the threshold for local action.

Community outbreaks are not one of the six state-level criteria that can put a county on the governor’s watch list. The county has not yet indicated how it would handle the possibility of making it off the state list while still observing a large number of new outbreaks.

Through Aug. 12, the region recorded 37 community outbreaks this month with 93 in July. County records indicate that restaurants with bars and businesses have generated the lion’s share of outbreaks so far with 50 and 46 tallied respectively from Mar. 25 to Aug. 12.

Dr. Wilma Wooten, the region’s public health officer, said that the common thread for outbreaks is people failing to follow the basic mask wearing, distancing and other personal hygiene recommendations that have been the constant mantra of everyone in the public health community for months. It is not, she said, just patrons failing to follow the guidelines.

“It’s just individual behavior, no matter what your role is, whether you are a patron or whether you’re staff,” Wooten said.

Thursday’s daily COVID-19 tracking report, while still showing long-term trends headed in the right direction, nonetheless showed a little momentary bump.

An additional 266 positive test results arrived at the county health department Wednesday, nearly 30 more than the 240 that the county needs to average to avoid popping a fresh warning flag at the state. But daily new-case totals really don’t mean as much as most would think. That’s because daily reports simply sweep up and report all results that arrive at the county’s epidemiology department on a given day. Many are from days or even weeks ago, meaning they don’t figure in the state’s case rate calculations which go by the date cases occurred rather than the date that positive test results were reported.

The county has indicated it will soon begin releasing daily numbers that show the totals.

Local hospitalizations and intensive care admissions continued to show stable trends, and an additional seven COVID-19-related deaths were also announced Thursday, bringing the local total to 615.

The county also reported taking 118 samples at its new PedEast testing station near the U.S.-Mexico border Thursday. Plans are underway, officials said, to increase the station’s hours of operation, keeping it open from 6:30 a.m. to noon rather than 10:30 a.m. as is currently the case.

— Paul Sisson is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune