In the Kern River Valley, coronavirus testing peaked after Memorial Day, when a well-known member of the community contracted COVID-19.
“Everybody and their brother (came in),” said Tim McGlew, CEO of the Kern Valley Healthcare District. “We were up probably well over 100, 120 a day immediately for probably two or three weeks after that.”
The relatively low-populated area around Isabella Lake had been seeing around 70 people coming in to get tested when the Kern Valley Hospital held the free testing days. The surge lasted for several weeks before dying down, McGlew said.
Now, on the one day of the week the hospital holds coronavirus tests, around 20 people come in.
“It’s anybody’s guess why that’s happening,” McGlew said of the decrease in demand for tests, “but my guess is that maybe people are feeling that this thing has passed.”
The decline around Isabella Lake has been mirrored throughout Kern County, vexing public health officials and thwarting efforts to meet new state requirements to ease business restrictions.
“Maybe people are thinking maybe it’s not as serious as they made it out to be,” McGlew continued, while noting the virus is, indeed, a very serious illness under certain circumstances. “It’s kind of hard to know what’s going through people’s minds.”
Understanding the reason why less people are getting tested became more important for Kern officials after Gov. Gavin Newsom changed the metrics by which a county’s coronavirus spread is measured. Under a system unveiled last week, counties are penalized if their rate of residents getting tested falls below the state average. In Kern County, that means a case rate of 7.8 people testing positive for coronavirus over a seven day period per 100,000 residents is artificially bumped up to 9.2.
That’s bad news for county residents who want Kern to drop from the most restrictive of the state’s four COVID-19 tiers into the third and below. In order to do so, the county will need to drop below 7 cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period.
For a county that's experiencing dropping levels of COVID-19 and was closing in on meeting the state’s previous criteria — which included hospital capacity — the change has been frustrating.
“When the major measurement of our ability to reopen was hospital capacity, we poured tens of millions of dollars and tons of energy into making sure we had hospital capacity. And we did that,” said Supervisor Mike Maggard, who is on a county coronavirus task force. “As the goalpost has moved each time, we’re bouncing from thing to thing to make sure we’re covered.”
But, he said, the county has a plan to increase testing throughout Kern, and do it quickly.
With only the Good Samaritan Hospital in Oildale providing free tests to the entire metro Bakersfield area, the county plans to open a handful of additional testing sites in the area in less than 30 days. Other parts of the county have adequate coverage, Maggard said.
Also, county officials hope to switch the method of testing a nasal swab to a mouth swab, which Maggard said is less intrusive and could be done more quickly.
The third aspect of the county’s plan is to encourage its own employees to get tested, as well as the employees of other major employers. By doing so, the county could see large swaths of local residents go in for testing, which could ensure workplaces are safe and bump up the county’s numbers.
It appears Kern County has a long way to go to reach the state’s average. As it stands this week, Kern County tested 126 residents per 100,000 for COVID-19 while the state as a whole tested 217.9.
Still, Maggard expressed hope that the county could meet the state’s goals.
“We’ve demonstrated that we can hit the mark,” he said, “but they keep moving the bar on us.”