In an effort to meet new state coronavirus benchmarks required to reopen the economy, Kern County Supervisors approved a plan on Tuesday that rewards county employees for getting COVID-19 tests.
Any county employee who receives six coronavirus tests between Tuesday and the end of the year will receive eight hours of paid time off beginning Jan. 15. The county is encouraging other cities throughout Kern to adopt similar policies, which could result in a boost to local testing numbers.
The county pursued this new policy, which is estimated to cost $1.8 million in CARES Act funding and was added to Tuesday’s agenda as an emergency item, because Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced a new coronavirus metric system by which counties that fall behind the statewide average for daily COVID-19 tests will be penalized with an artificially increased case rate.
Kern County already stands within the most restrictive of the state’s four tiers that classify how widespread COVID-19 is within counties. In order to move from the “widespread” tier to the less restrictive “substantial” tier, the county would need to reach less than 7 new coronavirus cases per day per 100,000 residents, with a less than 8 percent positivity rate, for two weeks.
On Tuesday, Public Health Services Director Matt Constantine revealed Kern actually met the state’s metrics, but had been penalized with an increased case rate because the county’s testing numbers were low.
“The important part of this is we have been making significant strides in our numbers,” he told supervisors. “They are coming down. If we didn’t have the adjustment, we’d actually be meeting tier 2, which would allow other businesses to open up.”
The state updates each county’s tier status every Tuesday. The latest update showed Kern County had a case rate of 6.7 new coronavirus cases each day per 100,000 residents, with a 7.1 percent positivity rate.
However, because the county tests 150 people per 100,000 residents each week compared to the state average of 216, the case rate was adjusted to 7.5.
Constantine said the county would need to test 607 more people per day in order to meet the state average, which he described as a significant challenge.
“We have a tremendous amount of capacity that is underutilized,” he said of the county’s testing ability. “Many of our testing sites are below 50 percent. Some are below 25 percent. So we have the capacity. We’ve taken away all the barriers. It’s free. You don’t have to have symptoms. We have 11 sites. We have now two mobile sites, we bring it to you.”
Complicating matters further is yet a new equity requirement the state introduced on Sunday. According to the Kern public health department, the health equity metric divides a county by census tracts, requiring the best-performing area’s positivity rates to differ by no more than 1 percent compared to the lowest-performing area. In order to keep moving down the tiered system, counties will need to reduce the disparity by 10 percent in six weeks.
“They want areas that have higher testing positivity to be given additional resources to try to help those that perhaps live in areas that have higher rates,” Constantine said.
In Kern County, Constantine said the difference between positivity rates in different census tracts was 6.5 percent, meaning the county has work to do in order to close the gap.
Some supervisors spoke out against the state, once again, changing the requirements counties must meet to reopen businesses.
“It is quite clear that someone, or some group in Sacramento, is thinking of new ways they want to tweak the world, and what results they would like to see in our society and culture, and they are loading that into these metrics we are receiving,” Supervisor Mike Maggard said. “It just points out the complete arbitrary nature and unfairness of the process, that (the governor) is causing now us to be measured by circumstances that are completely beyond our control. And he knows, the governor knows, they are beyond our control.”
Supervisors voted 4-0, with Leticia Perez absent, to direct the County Administrative Office to draft a resolution chastising the governor’s changes in metrics and demanding the state base business reopening on overall case rate and positivity rate.
“It just continues to give us all a sense of frustration and feeling defeated that we’re never going to get out of this if you keep changing the rules,” Supervisor Zack Scrivner said during the meeting. “We should be allowing restaurants to open to some extent, churches, gyms, et cetera.”
The county’s hospital capacity, which was previously a metric by which the state judged counties’ ability to reopen, has been doing well, the county health department noted. As of Tuesday, the department said 18 people are in intensive care units with COVID-19, with 67 total hospitalized. There are 47 available ICU beds should the need arise.