COVID-19

Shaelyn Coleman, of Jamestown, left, takes lunch orders from Jessica Wilson, center, and Taylor Gonzales, right, both of Oakdale at Emberz on Oct .20.

Tuolumne County supervisors spent more than two hours on Tuesday debating the merits of shutting down the economy to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, after two of them proposed sending a letter to California leaders in opposition to such lockdowns.

The board ultimately didn’t reach a consensus to send a letter and instead agreed to continue working with organizations such as the Rural County Representatives of California on questions over whether the strategy is as necessary in less densely populated areas.

County supervisors Anaiah Kirk and Karl Rodefer led the charge for the board to adopt “their message of fully reopening the economy” while also strongly encouraging “appropriate and safe mitigation measures.”

Kirk went through a 37-slide PowerPoint presentation with the board based on research he said he conducted about the issue that would show shutting down the economy does more harm than good.

“The big picture I want you to walk away with from this is that lockdowns hurt our society more than they help our society,” he said.

The state was the first in the nation to impose such a lockdown in mid-March when Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order for all Californians to shelter in place, which was aimed at preventing the medical system from becoming overwhelmed with virus patients as seen in other parts of the country and world.

Many businesses throughout the state were shut down for months as a result of the order, though most in Tuolumne County have reopened since the state began easing restrictions in early June.

Kirk began the presentation acknowledging the reality of the dangers from the novel coronavirus, which has led to the deaths of more than 221,000 Americans and more than 1.1 million people worldwide, by showing a chart of how the number of deaths in the U.S. have exceeded the statistical average since early April.

“So obviously, we know COVID’s real,” he said. “People who say it’s not, well, there’s the proof in the pudding.” 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data on Tuesday that nearly 300,000 more Americans have died from late January to early October than in previous years, with two out of three of those excess deaths attributed to COVID-19.

Later slides in Kirk’s presentation also used data from CDC and the World Health Organization, in addition to some sources that drew skepticism from certain supervisors and members of the public, to support his argument against lockdowns.

Kirk said that his main concern is that a second wave of the virus in the U.S. will prompt Newsom to again shut down the economy, which his presentation argued causes more instances of depression, suicide, substance abuse and other mental health issues.

The presentation also discussed the Great Barrington Declaration, which has been disputed by some experts and proposes an alternative approach that focuses protections on the most at risk groups while allowing those at lower risk to resume their lives as normal.

About eight people called into the meeting, which was not open to the public due to pandemic-related restrictions, with most expressing concern about the proposal and some in support.

One man compared Kirk’s presentation to something “done by a high school sophomore” that was designed to use select data to prove his point, while another woman who identified herself as a registered nurse said there were health care providers who supported his arguments.

There was a moment of tension between Kirk and County Supervisor Ryan Campbell, who was largely opposed to the overall message, over a part of the presentation in which Kirk applied a study from John Hopkins University showing an increase in psychological distress among children because of the pandemic to a separate study done by the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Office in February.

Superintendent of Schools Cathy Parker sent the board an email prior to the meeting stating that the way the data was applied to the local study was mathematically incorrect.

Campbell asked why the data was allowed to remain in the presentation after being disputed by Parker and noted how he’d never seen a situation in which a supervisor presented something similar to a staff report to the board.

“Ryan, you’re wasting my time,” Kirk responded.

“This is not your time, this is the board’s time,” Campbell shot back, which drew a rebuke from Board Chairwoman Sherri Brennan. 

“I’m just pointing out this is very bizarre,” Campbell said to Brennan.

Dr. Eric Sergienko, the county’s acting health officer, said at the meeting that he didn’t recommend fully reopening the economy and that the idea of gaining herd immunity as suggested by the Great Barrington Declaration could increase local deaths and hospitalizations.

There was also discussion by Rodefer in particular about pushing for the state to focus on death rate as opposed to the number of cases, though Sergienko said that could make the county slow to act because deaths typically follow cases by a matter of weeks and pointed out that the county’s death rate was only slightly lower than the state as a whole.

Sergienko also said that the long-term impacts of the disease are still largely unknown, though there’s anecdotal evidence that some people have experienced neurological problems that have lasted for months after their diagnosis.

While not agreeing with the premise that lockdowns caused excess deaths, Sergienko said he thought it was good for communities to have discussions about the appropriate level of reopening.

Campbell apologized to Sergienko for “what has happened” and applauded him and staff at the county Public Health Department for looking “at these things in a dispassionate, apolitical way.”

County Supervisor John Gray noted that 28 percent of the county is 65 or older, compared with 70 percent of San Diego County that’s younger than 38. 

Gray said he agreed that lockdowns caused harm, but he couldn’t support sending the proposal for fully reopening the economy to the state because he didn’t believe they had all of the answers to know whether that’s appropriate.

“I asked Dr. Sergienko, and his answer to me was fully opening the economy at this time is not a good idea,” he said. “I’m going to have to rely on our health officer’s position.”

Rodefer said the purpose of the discussion was not to challenge or question Sergienko or public health staff, whom he said are doing a “wonderful job,” but rather whether the state guidelines make sense in a rural setting as opposed to more densely populated cities.

One person who called into the meeting said Rodefer and Kirk were misrepresenting health professionals, which Rodefer said was not true.

“We’re talking to them every single day,” he said. “We’re not talking about being shut down right now, but we are going to go back up. We are going to have a second wave. That’s coming. What we can’t do is shut back down.”

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

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