While new COVID-19 infections are at an all-time high in Tulare County — with hospitalizations and deaths increasing daily to keep pace — residents who believe the pandemic response is unnecessary are fighting against new and existing public health measures with a virulence that almost matches that of the new omicron variant.
January saw 18.6% of all county cases so far
During her first 2022 report to the Tulare County Board of Supervisors on the ongoing COVID crisis and the local response, Health and Human Services Public Health Director Karen Elliot painted a grim picture of the omicron variant’s spread.
“Unfortunately, what we’re seeing is a very rapid activity on COVID,” Elliot said. “Our numbers for confirmed cases as of this week is 87,386. What I want to point out on that is that the week of January 11th we were up 3,000 (new cases of COVID-19). The week of January 17th, we were up 4,700. And this week we were up 8,600.”
Those 16,300 cases represent 18.6 percent — nearly one-fifth — of all cases reported in Tulare County since the outbreak began.
Elliot says the omicron variant is “impacting Tulare County harshly,” pushing the rates of hospitalization and the resulting deaths to new heights.
“Our case rate right now is at 183.5 (per 100,000 population), as compared to California which is 254.6,” she said. “The case rate is the largest we have seen .”
Good News, Bad News
The latest data, however, show the infection rate might be slowing down, but the indicators are not entirely clear yet. In particular, the rate of infections passed on by known COVID patients is down. The worry is the rate won’t stay down.
“We are beginning to see some decline,” Elliot said. “We are concerned that as data comes in this can change.”
What is definitely skyrocketing is the rate of hospitalization for COVID-19 infections.
“I think what we’ve basically seen is that our COVID-positive hospitalizations have doubled since the week of January 10th,” Elliot said.
And those who care for the stricken, she said, are not immune.
“We’re also seeing a lot of health care workers who are becoming infected and sick with COVID at alarming rates,” Elliot said.
There has been some help for the county’s overburdened hospitals from the state, which is providing resources, and stays for COVID-19 infections are becoming shorter. Those who require a hospital stay are also requiring less critical care, easing the burden on caregivers and making room for non-COVID patients.
Anti-Vax Advocates Speak Out
While the disease has killed 5.7 million people so far worldwide, with Americans accounting for nearly one in six of the dead, there remains a vocal contingent of Tulare County residents who continue to maintain the public health response to the most deadly pandemic in more than a century is a nefarious money-making scheme.
Tulare County’s leaders, they say, are participants in a plan to force an unsafe and even deadly vaccine on the poor to benefit a shadowy over-class of unnamed individuals.
Consideration of acceptance of a $236,249 grant from the Public Health Institute — part of $600,000 in total grants earmarked to repay the county for vaccination outreach and education it has already performed — brought an opportunity for those who distrust the fight against COVID-19 to voice their concerns and make their allegations of wrongdoing.
“Why are we going to take tax dollars and spend it on educating people in (poor) neighborhoods, which really we’re not educating,” Myrna Garcia said. “We’re kind of scaring them into– It’s all a scare tactic. It’s all about money.”
‘Stop Killing Our Children’
Garcia described herself as growing up in a “poverty area,” and she was concerned ignorance among the poor was being exploited to harm them.
“I’m just in disagreement (with vaccine education) as many people are,” she said. “I feel many people in poverty areas are likely to get the vaccine without even knowing what could affect them and what’s in it.”
Garcia also spoke out against the use of masks, but gave no reasoning behind her stance.
Another anti-vaccination activist, who only identified herself as Pamela, told supervisors their efforts to stop COVID-19 were extremely damaging according to “real science.”
“What we’re actually doing is scaring people into putting something into their body, and we have no idea what it is,” Pamela said. “We’re being told it’s safe and effective, but after doing the research on the VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Effect Reporting System) from the CDC, I can tell you the statistics say these shots are doing more harm than good.”
She gave no specifics about how the vaccine harmed people.
“We’ve had enough,” she said. “Stop killing our children.”
‘There Are People Sick and People Dying’
District 1 Supervisor Larry Micari says the county’s outreach has been reassuring to those living outside the county’s major population centers.
“I’ve been to some of these communities who absolutely appreciate this outreach because they feel they’ve been left out,” he said.
Still, those who oppose the public health efforts were not swayed. The county’s outreach efforts, they say, are an effort to foist an unsafe vaccine on an unsuspecting and ignorant public without discussing side-effects or making it clear there are treatments available for those who forego the vaccine and later become infected.
“I am asking that this money not be spent for vaccine education,” said Kelly Culver, a Dinuba resident. “What you call education is more just spouting the propaganda. Everyone knows about these shots, how to get them. It’s broadcasted 24/7 on television.”
Another semi-anonymous vaccine opponent, Jeremy of Tulare County, said the county was conducting a “pro-vaccination effort cloaked as education.”
In answer, Supervisor Micari pointed out the county would be on the hook for the $600,000 already expended if the grants were rejected. He urged those opposing the educational effort to see the fiscal reasonableness of accepting the grant money, but not without adding his own bit of rebellion against the current public measures as he did it.
“Like I said, I’m not a ‘mandate’ person. You can tell by looking at me right here. I’m not wearing a mask. OK? And I believe each one of us is adults and we should all have the right to choose what we feel for our health benefits, whether you want to get vaccinated or not,” Micari said. “With that said, we are in a pandemic. There are people sick and people dying. We need to take care of it.”
Hospitals Change COVID Policies
With hospitalizations doubling in Tulare County since the second week of January, the county’s two publicly-funded hospitals — Kaweah Health in Visalia and Sierra View in Porterville — have each changed their COVID-19 policy for visitors.
In Visalia, COVID-19 patients admitted to Kaweah Health’s ICU and intermediate critical care unit will now be allowed visitors. Patients will be allowed a single visitor who may make two one-hour visits each day at designated one-hour visiting sessions.
“We recognize how hard it’s been for COVID positive patients to not have visitors,” said Kaweah CEO Gary Herbst. “The isolation they feel is terrible.”
Visitors will be required to gear up in much more than just a cloth mask. Those entering the hospital will be required to wear a surgical mask, goggles or face shield, gloves and a gown. They must also be vaccinated.
These steps actually represent a loosening of precautions at Kaweah Health, where previously no visitors were permitted at all for COVID-19 patients.
Sierra View Out of ICU Beds
Porterville’s Sierra View has also tightened its COVID-19 precautions, issuing a new policy turning away those who will not wear a mask. The move is in line with new guidance from the California Department of Public Health, which on January 5 issued a mandatory mask order for all indoor public settings with no exception for vaccinated individuals.
At the same time they announced this change in mask policy, Sierra View officials also revealed the hospital was running at full capacity in its ICU in mid-January. They urged everyone to take precautions against infection to avoid seeking treatment from a system that may not be able to provide it.
“Seeing the surge of the omicron and delta variants hitting our hospital and health care systems, we are at capacity,” said Sierra View’s Chief Nursing Officer Dr. Jeffery Hudson-Covolo. “Our ICU is beyond capacity and this is the time that we really need people to focus on getting their booster if they haven’t already done so to avoid hospitalization.”
Medical Workers Taking a Big Hit
In early January, Kaweah Health also put out a similar call for the public’s help in preventing new infections in order to keep healthcare workers on the job.
“Omicron is highly contagious and highly transmissible and it’s disabling workforces, not just ours, but everyone we rely on,” said Vice President and Chief Nursing Officer Keri Noeske. “We’re asking everyone, our community and our staff, to be careful out there. Please exercise good practices: wear masks, get fully vaccinated, wash your hands, stay six feet apart from others. Anything we can do to prevent the spread in the community will help Valley hospitals with staffing.”
On January 7, Kaweah Health reported 201 of its employees tested positive for COVID-19. That number represents a significant jump, as only 82 employees carried the virus four days earlier; only 33 were infected at the end of December.
In that first week of January, Kaweah Health had 150 vacant nursing positions; it was treating 169 COVID-19 patients at the same time, a new high water mark for that hospital.
The omicron variant was officially diagnosed in Tulare County the last week of December, with three positive cases; the county has recorded 16,800 cases since. The county’s infection rate, which is currently two points lower than the state average, is expected to catch up, meaning the situation will likely worsen with no end in sight.
“Our health system has never stopped being impacted since the pandemic started,” Noeske said.