An astounding 1,120 new COVID-19 cases were reported in Kern County Wednesday, a nearly tenfold increase over the number of daily cases reported in recent weeks.
It’s not just jaw-dropping by our own measure. Kern has had the second- or third-highest number of daily cases of any county statewide in the past several days, behind only Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
Why are Kern’s numbers so high?
It appears to be caused by a confluence of factors including high demand for testing, backlogs in processing tests, both at labs and when results are received by the county, and the plain fact there is more widespread transmission of the disease in the community.
Kern County Public Health Services Department said in a statement explaining the high case counts:
“Over the last several weeks we have observed a significant increase in testing at our county and state testing sites. Some of our sites have experienced a four-fold increase that has been sustained over the last few weeks.
“Contracted labs (Quest and Westpac) have notified us that they are experiencing shortages with testing supplies and laboratory reagent and their turnaround time is extended with results not being received for 7 days or more in many instances.
“This surge in testing and the delayed results have recently resulted in large numbers of lab results currently being received at Public Health. This increased volume has overwhelmed our system and our staffing plan was not able to keep pace. We have called more people within our department to assist us and have tripled the staffing in key areas. We spent early last week training and implementing the changes and are making significant progress.
"This means that there will be a large increase in the number of positive tests being reported out for the next few weeks if not longer.”
The daily case counts are not reflective of new cases in the past day or two — they generally represent cases in the past four or five days, though testing backlogs have stretched that timeframe out even longer.
Similarly, the 10 new deaths reported Wednesday happened over a week or more ago, bringing the total to 115. Total cases countywide now exceed 11,000 and the number of people tested is approaching 110,000 out of a county population of 900,000.
In addition, local hospitals took in another 32 COVID-19 patients in a 48-hour period from Sunday to Tuesday, according to a state hospitalization tracker.
In recent weeks, the number of new cases announced daily was hovering around 100 to 150 per day, but on Saturday it hit nearly 500 and the number has increased every day since then.
On Tuesday, Kern was added back on the state's watchlist of counties that are exceeding certain COVID-19 metrics.
The website for the state watchlist states of Kern: "The likely drivers of elevated disease transmission include: 1) An exponential expansion of testing Kern County residents; 2) Transmission in skilled nursing facilities, prisons and other congregate facilities; 3) Household contacts and social gatherings among separate households."
County officials said earlier this week that the number of people tested began rapidly increasing earlier this month.
Whereas about 20,000 tests had been done in the first 22 days of June, more than 40,000 were done in the first 22 days of July, county figures show.
Meanwhile, in a Tweet on Wednesday, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, said Health and Human Services had approved surge testing in Bakersfield, meaning that more testing will soon be available at no cost.
Surge testing is approved for communities seeing a sudden increase in cases and hospitalizations, according to HHS. It has previously been approved in Jacksonville, Fla.; Baton Rouge, La.; and Edinburg, Texas.
Some health experts said that beyond increased testing and backlogs, the virus is simply spreading more widely in the community.
UC Irvine epidemiologist and associate public health professor Andrew Noymer said the type of growth in cases Kern is seeing is what eventually happens in an exponentially growing pandemic. The rate of increase is proportional to the size of the number of cases, he said.
“The exponential growth goes up and up and up. It’s like a rocket ship,” Noymer said, explaining that cases in the last three weeks may equal the whole curve before then.
Dr. Hemmal Kothary, chief medical officer for Dignity Health's Central California division, said he believed gatherings for recent holidays are likely driving the numbers. Fourth of July was a little more than two weeks ago, which is the incubation period for the virus. Father’s Day was four weeks ago.
“I think it will eventually settle down somewhat,” Kothary said of new cases.
But, he added, “I don’t think it goes away completely before the second wave,” which he expects to arrive this fall.
Clinica Sierra Vista, which operates healthcare clinics for the uninsured, has seen major increases in cases at its south Bakersfield and Lamont centers, said spokesman Tim Calahan. In Lamont, the positive rate to date is 40 percent and in south Bakersfield it’s 29 percent.
“It’s three-pronged,” Calahan explained.
Those areas are largely Hispanics, a population that has been contracting the virus at higher levels statewide and nationally. People in those areas tend to be essential workers so “they never stopped working during the pandemic.” And they tend to live in multigenerational housing with grandparents, children and grandchildren living in the same home.
“With congregate housing, all it takes is one person to spread that in the home,” Calahan said.