A remote Northern California county that had been one of the state’s two counties without any reported coronavirus cases now has at least five, prompting it to temporarily rescind orders that had reopened restaurants, shopping and other services.
Lassen County, home to about 30,000 people, had reported no coronavirus cases until May 22, when a resident who had traveled outside the county and became ill with coronavirus symptoms tested positive, said Barbara Longo, the county health and social services director.
A small team of 11 nurses and other health department employees then went to work over the holiday weekend to try to track down everyone who had been in contact with the infected person and get them tested, leading to all the additional cases.
“We got on it right away,” Longo said. “I’m telling you, we got the call Friday night and got all that testing done Saturday, Sunday and Monday.”
Several more people who had come into contact with the initial person infected were also under order to stay home for two weeks, the incubation period for COVID-19, even if they tested negative.
On Tuesday evening, the county notified businesses that had been allowed to reopen two weeks earlier that they would have to return to offering takeout food or curbside pickup.
“We were fully aware of the risk that the virus could come to our community from people visiting people living in infected areas outside of our county or people visiting our county. Unfortunately, this did happen and we now have a serious problem. We need to contain the spread of the virus in Lassen County now,” Dr. Kenneth Korver, the county’s public health officer, wrote Tuesday in a public health order.
For the owners of the Courthouse Cafe, a breakfast and lunch place on Main Street in Susanville, it meant a return to offering its street tacos, asada fries and and biscuits and gravy to go, which it had adapted to during the stricter stay-at-home order.
“We’re just rolling with the punches,” said Alex Lopez, whose family owns the restaurant. “We knew that’s what was going to happen when other counties reopened before Memorial Day weekend. We knew we were going to get cases.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, the county had only five cases — all spread within the community from the person initially infected. Longo said the first person infected had not done anything inappropriate in leaving the county.
The county’s effort to expand testing at at a drive-thru site at Lassen Community College has, so far, turned up no more cases after testing 425 people, though about half those results are still pending. The person who tested positive had been tested at a doctor’s office. In total, at least 814 people had been tested, according to county data.
The county began reopening businesses May 11 under state guidance that sets limits of fewer than one case per 10,000 residents in the past two weeks. Lassen County exceeded that limit with more than three cases. It has not had any deaths or hospitalizations.
It is now the first county to revoke its attestation to the state that it can safely reopen.
Dining in at restaurants, in-store shopping, hair salon services and religious services are forbidden for at least seven days. Some businesses had to shut down after rehiring staff, sanitizing equipment and training workers on hygiene.
“It is really tough,” Longo said. “It wasn’t taken lightly. We wanted to contain this.”
Kate Folmar, a spokeswoman for the California Health and Human Services Agency, said Lassen County’s response to the cases demonstrates how the state’s system is supposed to work.
“Lassen County saw a change in their data, and their public health officer decided to slow its reopenings. In this new normal, local public health officers are the best first line of defense and best able to assess the facts on the ground,” she said in a statement.
Many of California’s rural, northern counties have seen few coronavirus cases, and they were among the first to receive approval from the state to begin reopening businesses. Forty-seven of the state’s 58 counties, including Lassen, have now been given state approval to move more quickly into reopening. They can get that approval based on hospitalizations, positive test rates or total case loads, but they must submit plans explaining how they would respond if an outbreak occurred. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.