Reports of people leaving cities for rural areas in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic has some Tuolumne County residents on edge about an influx of outsiders potentially overwhelming local health care facilities if an outbreak occurs.

Local law enforcement officials say there’s nothing in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order for all Californians to stay at home that limits people’s movement in or out of the county, but public health officials have asked visitors to limit their travel and monitor themselves for symptoms.

“Without such an order, there’s nothing the Sheriff’s Office can do to limit travel in and out of the county,” said Sheriff Bill Pooley.

Dr. Eric Sergienko, interim county health officer, said there is concern about an influx of people from other areas coming to stay in the county, but the community “should be fine” if visitors comply with the stay-at-home order after they get here.

Sergienko said they have to strike a balance between protecting the local population from exposure to the potentially deadly virus, while at the same time not restricting people’s civil liberties.

“At this point, since we don’t have cases in the county, getting voluntary compliance is key,” he said. “And if we need to, we’ll transition. That will come if we do start seeing cases.”

The Tuolumne County Public Health Department released updated numbers Monday afternoon showing the number of people tested for the virus in the county had grown to 93, up from 62 as of Friday afternoon. 

Out of the 93 tested, 66 were negative and 27 were still pending. The numbers did not include possible negative tests that were routed through commercial laboratories, because they are only required to report when a test comes back positive.

There have been two cases of the virus in Calaveras County that were confirmed earlier this month, a father and his child in Copperopolis, which the public health department believed were contracted by the father while working at a hospital in a Bay Area county.

No new cases were confirmed by the county’s public health department as of Monday.

Specifics on the capacity at local hospitals were scarce on Monday despite requests from The Union Democrat for the number ventilators, emergency beds and intensive care unit beds.

A report published last week by Kaiser Health News found that millions of older Americans live in areas where hospitals don’t have any ICU beds, which have equipment like ventilators and heart-monitoring machines.

Kaiser Health News analyzed data from hospital cost reports to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and found that more than half of the counties in the United States don’t have any ICU beds.

The data showed that Tuolumne County had six ICU beds, while Calaveras and Mariposa counties had none. 

There are 17,942 residents 60 or older in Tuolumne County, which represents about one-third of its total population, meaning there are nearly 3,000 people in that age group per ICU bed.

Karen O’Brien, spokeswoman for Adventist Health Sonora, did not provide specific numbers but said the hospital is part of a multi-state system of hospitals that share critical items between facilities when possible for areas with greatest need and work closely with vendors.

“We realize that the supplies needed to combat COVID-19 are limited throughout the nation,” she said. “We are prudent stewards of resources and continue to collaborate with federal, state and local agencies to provide the right care for patients.”

Michelle Jachetta, spokeswoman and emergency preparedness coordinator for the Tuolumne County Public Health Department, has long worked with its health care partners to identify potential alternate sites to treat patients in preparation of a potential surge.

Jachetta said the department maintains a list of assessed pre-identified sites for potential use, but could not share the list when asked because it’s an “internal resource document.”

The department also posted a photo Monday afternoon on its Facebook page that showed a recent shipment of personal protective equipment supplies based on requests from its health care partners and was working on getting them to local providers.

Mark Twain Medical Center in San Andreas also did not provide specific numbers on the resources available, but hospital spokeswoman Nicki Stevens provided a written statement that said it has specific surge policies and procedures for pandemics.

The hospital has identified potential alternate care sites that could be used if a surge happens and installed an Emergency Department triage tent where they can identify, isolate and triage who have symptoms of the infectious disease.

“If there were an influx of severely ill patients, we would triage the most critically ill who need a higher level of care,” the statement said. “Patients could also be transferred to our sister facilities or to other nearby health systems.”

The Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau, also known as Visit Tuolumne County, has suspended short-term marketing efforts in part to limit visitation during the crisis, while certain businesses that attract visitors like both casinos and Dodge Ridge Ski Area have temporarily closed. 

Popular attractions like Yosemite National Park have temporarily closed at the request of local public health departments.

Lisa Mayo, the bureau’s executive director, said the money saved on short-term marketing efforts now will be used for the “massive” tourism recovery efforts that will be needed when the immediate crisis is over.

“Visit Tuolumne County’s message is that this isn’t the time to visit,” said Lisa Mayo, executive director of the bureau. “That time will come, and we can’t wait to welcome you back.”

Mayo urged people to follow Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order from last week for all Californians to shelter in place, though she’s heard stories mostly through social media about people coming from other places to stay at their vacation homes in the county.

Jerry Morrow, who lives between Long Barn and Sierra Village, said he’s heard similar stories from his neighbors and businesses about a number of people coming from places like the Bay Area to shelter in their cabins, or stock up on supplies that are sold out where they live.

Morrow said he wasn’t telling people they shouldn’t come to the county because it’s a free country, but he believes they should be following the guidelines to stay at their home. He also believed local hospitals should be providing information to the public about their capacity.

“We want to know what they’ve got,” he said. “That’s part of their responsibility to let the public know.”

 

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 768-5175.

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