Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated Kern County Public Health would begin releasing age ranges of patients. The department will only be releasing hospitalizations at this time. This story has been updated.
Kern County confirmed eight new cases of COVID-19 Thursday, raising the total number of cases to 32 cases locally, an increase of eight in about 24 hours, according to figures from the Kern County Public Health Services Department.
Of those cases, 20 are in west Bakersfield, five are in east Bakersfield, six are in the valley area west of Bakersfield and one in the eastern Kern desert area.
Also Thursday, Kern County Public Health Services spokeswoman Michelle Corson said the department will begin releasing hospitalization status of positive cases as of Friday. The department has come under increasing criticism from concerned residents for not releasing more data about local cases beyond what geographic area of the county they are located in.
Corson has repeatedly said the department is following state guidelines as to what information can be released, but other counties with similar case numbers have released more information about those affected.
The number of local cases has risen dramatically in recent days as testing has picked up locally. On Sunday, Kern's total coronavirus cases stood at five. By Monday, the total jumped to 13 and by Wednesday it nearly doubled, reaching 24.
By Thursday afternoon, 1,556 tests for the virus have been done in the county and 880 are pending results, according to county public health data. More than 640 have come back negative. The first case of coronavirus in Kern was announced nine days ago on March 17 in a visitor to the county. That number is not included in the current total.
Bakersfield, specifically west Bakersfield, where 20 of the 32 cases are located, has emerged as the local epicenter of COVID-19 but it's unclear what the high number of cases there means, if anything.
"We have not identified any relevant exposure that has resulted in this pattern. In interviewing cases in this area, no pattern has emerged," Corson said in an email.
Earlier in the day, during a morning briefing, she said the high number of cases in a certain area could be, for example, because testing is more accessible in those areas.
"I think over time patterns may develop," Corson said. "The way testing has surfaced and where there is testing happening, there's just so many different factors playing in."
Grace Tidwell, a physician with Omni Family Health, said it's hard for anyone to draw conclusions from the geographical disbursement of the cases right now because there’s no additional data available on those cases.
“We're going to see more cases in areas that are more densely populated of course. There's more people there and it tends to spread more quickly because we're very close together,” she said.
Access to medical care is another factor that could be playing into the numbers, she said, particularly where you see higher cases in the more affluent west side of Bakersfield versus the east side.
“We could certainly deduce that folks on (the west) side of (Bakersfield) might have more access to private health insurance or health care,” Tidwell said but added there is no specific data to show that is true.
Statewide there are 3,243 cases of COVID-19 and 68 deaths according to the Los Angeles Times, which is tracking cases throughout the state.
Tidwell said she is certain there are many more cases in the community than have been officially confirmed through testing. Studies she’s reviewed suggest there are 10 to 90 undiagnosed cases for every one that is diagnosed, she said.
Corson also announced during the briefing that the state put forth new guidelines about testing. Testing should only be done, she said, for people exhibiting signs of the disease who are hospital patients, residents of long-term care facilities, people at high risk of severe infection, residents and staff of correctional facilities and other congregant facilities, and health care workers.
For all others, Corson said: "We encourage all residents with respiratory symptoms to contact their healthcare provider so their healthcare provider can assess them and determine if they should be tested for COVID-19 or other respiratory illness."