The spread of the COVID-19 virus has reached an alarming rate, prompting Bay Area health officers to implement the state's new regional stay-at-home order earlier rather than wait until local hospitals are near crisis, they said during a press conference on Friday afternoon.
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Thursday that all sectors other than retail and essential operations would be closed in regions of the state where less than 15% of intensive care unit beds are available under a new regional stay-at-home order.
Santa Clara County reached that metric on Friday, with 14% ICU bed capacity, Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said. The average percentage of ICU beds filled with COVID-19 patients has tripled in the last month. Thursday brought a new record of 67 new patients admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 and each day breaks a previous record, she said. (On Friday, the county recorded 46 new COVID-19 patients.)
Health officers from Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco, Marin counties and the city of Berkeley said they will enact the early order starting Dec. 6, 7 or 8 through Jan. 4 to try to reduce the stress on their hospital resources and staff.
The orders will become effective as follows: Santa Clara, San Francisco and Contra Costa counties, Sunday at 10 p.m.; city of Berkeley and Alameda County, Monday at 12:01 a.m.; and Marin County, Tuesday at noon. San Mateo County did not join the regional health officers in issuing the early order.
"We are in an especially dangerous period of the COVID-19 epidemic," Contra Costa County Health Officer Dr. Christopher Farnitano said. "December will be the dark COVID winter we feared would come."
He and the other health officers did not think they could wait. The current situation is an emergency, he added.
There is a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Contra Costa County and across the region, according to Farnitano. "The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in our county has doubled in just the past couple of weeks, and we are at risk of exceeding our hospital capacity later this month if current trends continue," he said.
"It takes several weeks for new restrictions to slow rising hospitalizations and waiting until only 15% of a region’s ICU beds are available is just too late," San Francisco Health Officer Dr. Tomás Aragon said. "Many heavily impacted parts of our region already have less than 15% of ICU beds available, and the time to act is now." He added that there is no place to transfer patients with nearly three-quarters of all beds filled in the Bay Area.
Aragon said that every person who tests positive infects another one-and-a-half people. For every case they do detect, six to 10 cases go undetected. "This virus is relentless and unforgiving," he said.
Dr. Lisa Hernandez, health officer for the city of Berkeley, urged the public to take the order seriously. People should not travel for the upcoming holidays, nor gather or meet with anyone outside of their own household, even outdoors.
"If you have a social bubble, it is now popped. Do not let this be the last holiday with your family," she said.
The health officers said that they often work collaboratively and provide hospital and ICU beds when hospitals in another county are overwhelmed. They would do the same during the COVID-19 crisis, but they want to make sure they would have enough beds to serve their patients and handle any overload, if necessary.
"We cannot wait until after we have driven off the cliff to pull the emergency brake. We understand that the closures under the state order will have a profound impact on our local businesses. However, if we act quickly, we can both save lives and reduce the amount of time these restrictions have to stay in place, allowing businesses and activities to reopen sooner," Cody said.
Alameda County Health Officer Dr. Nicholas Moss said the rising hospitalization rates across the region threaten not only community members with severe COVID-19, but anyone who may need care because of a heart attack, stroke, accident or other critical health need.
"By acting together now we will have the greatest impact on the surge and save more lives," he said.
San Mateo County officials issued a statement on Friday afternoon supporting the other Bay Area health officials, but stopped short of issuing the restrictions.
"As other Bay Area Health officials today announced that they would impose new local stay-at-home orders, the County of San Mateo remains focused on following the state's existing metrics and process, while reinforcing the public's responsibility to comply with existing safety measures — especially avoiding gatherings — to slow the spread of COVID-19 during the holiday season.
"Accordingly, while the County understands and appreciates the measures taken by the other Bay Area counties, San Mateo will not at this time be issuing a new local stay-at-home order and will continue to work with business and community leaders on adherence to existing guidelines. San Mateo County remains in the purple Tier 1 on the state’s four-tier, color-coded system for restricting and loosening activities," county officials said.
"We know our residents have sacrificed and patience is growing thin, but we need you to know that you have the power to curb the spread and preserve hospital capacity for those who will need care in the coming weeks. We can get through this together if each of us takes action now to social distance, wear face coverings and avoid gatherings," County Manager Michael Callagy said in the statement.
The order follows the state's restrictions under the regional stay-home order. Bars, wineries, personal services, hair salons and barbershops will be closed. Retail will also be limited to 20% of capacity; restaurants will be closed for indoor and outdoor dining but may have takeout and deliveries. Schools that have already opened for in-person instruction and critical infrastructure such as grocery stores and pharmacies will remain open.
As such, Palo Alto Unified elementary schools will continue to serve students on campuses, the district said on Friday, following all guidelines from the Santa Clara County Public Health Department.
Plans to reopen the secondary schools for hybrid instruction in January, however, are officially on pause, meaning middle and high schoolers could approach a full year of remote learning.
"Despite extraordinary preparation efforts, it is now clear that our secondary schools will be prohibited from opening for hybrid instruction," Superintendent Don Austin wrote in a Friday update. "We do not see a viable path for high schools to reopen for hybrid instruction in the second semester. Internally, we are exploring options to create a limited return at the middle school level with a target of March. All plans depend on public health conditions and evolving regulations."
The district is "strongly" discouraging staff and families from recreational and nonessential travel. Students who travel more than 150 miles from the Santa Clara County boundaries are expected to self-quarantine for 14 days when they return, though teachers are not prohibited from returning to work after travel.
Schools may be required to close if certain percentages of staff and students are diagnosed with COVID-19. The district is continuing to post weekly updates of coronavirus cases online. Since August, there have been eight reported positive cases among students and staff.
The sector closures and restrictions on activity under the state's regional stay-at-home order can be found here.