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A tired, overwhelmed Kern County prepares for another long shutdown

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In this file photo, Kern County Chief Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop speaks at a news conference about COVID-19.

As Kern County prepares to endure yet another period of intense coronavirus restrictions, County Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop did not mince words during a news conference on updates to the county’s pandemic response.

“We’re all tired, we’re all over having to deal with this hell of a mess that we’re in,” he said during Thursday's press conference. “We are, in short, socially, emotionally and financially overwhelmed, spent.”

He went on about the frustrations some small business owners have expressed at being “whipsawed” by changing government regulations.

“This frustration that you feel is real and we understand it,” he said. “You have every right to feel the way that you do. And those of you who are at your end, you have every right to voice your dissatisfaction with the way things are being handled.”

Still, county businesses and places of worship have little choice but to comply with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 “emergency brake,” which pushes more than 94 percent of the state’s population into the most severe “purple tier” of the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy, the framework by which businesses and social gatherings are allowed to take place.

Counties in the purple tier are not allowed to have indoor dining in restaurants and churches and gyms must hold activities outdoors. Retail establishments must revert to 25 percent capacity. Previously they had been allowed to hold 50 percent. However, in a rule change, personal care services like hair and nail salons are allowed to continue operating.

The return to purple is accompanied by a stark increase in COVID-19 cases reported each day. Statewide, cases are increasing at the same rate as they did during the July peak, said Kern County Public Health Services Lead Epidemiologist Kim Hernandez. That differs from the national picture, where cases are increasing at twice the rate as July.

“That creates a lot of concerns here in California that this surge in cases that we are seeing now will continue to get worse,” she added.

How high the peak could be and how long it could last is an open question. Making matters worse, public health officials are concerned that the colder winter months, and the gatherings that occur on Thanksgiving and Christmas, could quicken the spread of the virus.

Even with the increase in cases, Kern County’s hospital capacity remains substantial. Considered a vital component to the county’s ability to treat those with severe health complications from COVID-19, hundreds of beds are currently sitting empty.

On Thursday, Public Health Director Matt Constantine reported Kern had 863 available beds, with 58 beds in intensive care units.

“That is a significant amount. It is higher than it’s been in months,” he said. “We have noticed a small decline in the last several weeks, but the hospitals remain available.”

He noted hospitalizations tended to trail three weeks behind surges in coronavirus, with about 10 percent of COVID-19 cases requiring hospitalizations and 3 percent needing intensive care.

The county has prepared for surges in coronavirus patients. The Board of Supervisors has designated $12 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding for traveling nurses to staff local hospitals.

So far around $1.4 million has been spent, leaving the vast majority available should it be needed.

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter@smorgenTBC.