Kern County Chief Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop lashed out at a new state policy that artificially inflates a county’s COVID-19 case rate if the average number of tests given out over a seven-day period falls below the state’s threshold.
The county is currently in the purple tier of the state’s color-coded four-tier system, and subject to the most severe economic restrictions in California. While coronavirus metrics have been improving, the state’s artificial increase of the county’s COVID-19 case rate puts Kern potentially months away from moving into the second most restrictive tier, the red tier.
“We’re making strong progress on our case rate numbers and our testing positivity rate and we are looking to move into the state’s red tier as soon as possible,” Alsop said. “This arbitrary directive only makes an already very slow process for additional limited reopening of businesses and getting our kids back in school even slower. We don’t know what it is intended to achieve other than to keep our economy locked down the way it is for a longer period of time and to keep parents out of work and their children out of the classroom longer.”
He said the state had been constantly “moving the goalposts” on counties with little advance warning on changes that are abruptly made.
“Counties up and down the state are literally being whipsawed by these constant changes,” he said, “changes being dictated by the governor and his public health team, with very little to no involvement of counties in the decision-making process.”
As of Tuesday, the number of Kern County residents testing positive for coronavirus over a seven day period was 7.8 per 100,000, according to the California Department of Public Health. The state requires counties to be under 7 per 100,000 in order to move into the red tier, meaning Kern had been inching closer to that goal.
However, because the number of tests conducted over a seven-day period in Kern County equaled 126 per 100,000, far below the state average of 217.9 per 100,000, the state adjusted Kern’s case rate higher.
That adjustment turned Kern County’s 7.8 into a 9.2, far above the state’s requirements.
“We simply cannot force people to go get tested even though we have the availability that we do,” Alsop said, adding that the unadjusted rate put Kern County on the precipice of moving into the red tier.
The county’s testing positivity rate — the ratio of tested people who receive positive results — is 9.9 percent according to the state, when it needs to be less than 8 percent.
The state updates each county’s numbers every Tuesday, with a seven-day lag.
When he announced the change last Friday, Gov. Gavin Newom said the state needed to do more to address the lingering coronavirus pandemic.
“We have made notable progress over recent weeks, but the disease is still too widespread across the state,” he said in a statement. “COVID-19 will be with us for a long time and we all need to adapt. We need to live differently. And we need to minimize exposure for our health, for our families and for our communities.”
Previously the state had required counties to have a certain percentage of hospital and intensive care unit beds available in case of a coronavirus surge. The county subsequently devoted resources to increasing hospital capacity, even going so far as to spend $12 million to bring in nurses from outside the area to expand the number of people who could be cared for locally.
However, under the new system, the state eliminated the hospital capacity requirement, leading to some frustration among county officials.
For Alsop and other counties, changes must be made.
“Governor, Kern County joins other counties in demanding that you stop moving the goalposts on us,” he said during the meeting. “We demand that you work more closely with us. We are demanding that you not arbitrarily assign a penalty because our population is not going in to get weekly tests. We are demanding that you not continue to make this situation any harder on our business community and on our kids than it already is. We are demanding that you reevaluate and change this course of action to reflect our actual numbers.”