Two men, one in his 50s and the other in his 70s, are the latest Tuolumne County residents to die from COVID-19.
The deaths of both men were reported Wednesday night by the county Public Health Department amid an ongoing surge of coronavirus cases throughout California.
It comes one day after the county reported its ninth death, a man in his 80s. All three men were said to have underlying health conditions and had been previously hospitalized for the deadly virus.
There were also 24 new cases reported by the county on Wednesday, while 10 people who had previously tested positive remained hospitalized.
The state reported that all six of the intensive care unit beds at Adventist Health Sonora were taken on Tuesday, four of them by COVID-19 patients.
According to the state’s data, the number of ICU beds reportedly available at the hospital on any given day has been less than five since Nov. 17.
There have been 833 new cases in the county since Oct. 31, an increase of about 282 percent, bringing the total since the pandemic began to 1,128.
The county’s testing positivity rate as of Tuesday was also at 21.2 percent, more than triple the statewide average of 6.9 percent.
Public health experts are blaming the rapid rise in cases seen recently throughout the state and nation largely on inconsistent individual safe practices.
Rebecca Espino, Tuolumne County’s health and human services director, said Wednesday county epidemiological staff are working closely with a Yosemite Gateway Area coordination team in an attempt to identify clusters of cases associated with gatherings.
However, Espino said the team relies on the community to be forthcoming with information.
“As an example, when an individual tests positive for COVID, a public health nurse conducts a comprehensive interview with the individual to determine all the places and with whom the person visited,” she said. “If the individual is not forthcoming, the data is incomplete and the ability to identify where the transmission occurred is impossible.”
Espino said she, her public health staff and other county staff continue to urge individuals to take personal responsibility and practice “all basic safety behaviors” to slow the spread of the pandemic in their communities. She also said it’s vital for individuals to limit contact with people outside their households, and “avoid gatherings especially as the Christmas holiday season approaches.”
Espino said Wednesday she and her staff have been close to overwhelmed in recent days, especially last week. On Nov. 24, she sent out a plea for help via email:
“Today, for the second time this month we have exceeded 55 cases in one day and these cases came in before 8:00 a.m. this morning. We are requesting help from any COVID or non-COVID trained employee who is willing to help with our COVID response today, tomorrow, Friday, and the weekend. HHSA staff will work on Thanksgiving, but only half day so we are not asking for help on that day. Staff are not required to commit to a specific number of days or hours because we will take anything folks have to offer. Staff will be provided a training video to watch followed by an hour of shadowing.”
On Tuesday morning, Espino thanked county Auditor-Controller Debi Bautista, Human Resources Director Ann Fremd, County Counsel Sarah Carrillo, and other county employees in numerous departments. They all worked the Thanksgiving Holiday weekend to help out, she said.
“Anytime we are unable to contact everyone who has tested positive on the day we receive their test results is a day that exceeds our capacity,” she said. “This threshold can increase or decrease based on available staff.”
The new cases in Tuolumne County came on the same day Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said “before February we could see 450,000 Americans who die from this virus” in a streamed address to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
“We are at a very critical time right now about being able to maintain the resilience of our health care system,” Refield said Wednesday. “Right now we unfortunately have a pandemic that’s really throughout the nation. The reality is December and January and February are going to be rough times.”
As of Wednesday evening, California had counted more than 1.24 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, resulting in 19,320 deaths. Nationally, the pandemic had resulted in more than 13.8 million confirmed cases and contributed to the deaths of more than 272,800 Americans.