When Supervisor Doug Teeter originally proposed the idea of rescinding Butte County’s COVID-19 local disaster proclamation resolution on Aug. 10, California was two months into having fully reopened its economy, and local schools were gearing up for in-person classes. Though cases were starting to rise due to the delta variant, vaccines were readily available. There was hope among many that life might be getting back to some semblance of normal.
Conditions quickly worsened, however. On Sept. 1, Butte County Public Health acknowledged the dire state of the pandemic, with cases reaching the second-highest weekly total of the entire pandemic (928 between Aug. 24 and Aug. 30). Director Danette York, who is vaccinated, sounded fatigued and congested as she began a press conference that day and told reporters that she’d just received the news she had contracted breakthrough COVID. Public Health representatives then announced that Butte County is seeing rising cases and deaths, largely among unvaccinated individuals, citing the county’s low vaccination rate (at 48.47 percent of the vaccine eligible, with another 7.19 percent partially inoculated as of Sept. 10).
As a result, the number of patients hospitalized at Enloe Medical Center is currently at an all-time high since the pandemic began. Enloe is now caring for 76 COVID patients, including 12 in the ICU. According to the hospital, 88 percent of its COVID patients are not fully vaccinated. (Countywide, as of Sept. 12, there were 106 patients hospitalized with COVID, 18 in ICUs.) Enloe was previously sharing statistics that included a breakdown of the vaccination status of those in the ICU. The last time it shared this information was on Aug. 30, when every patient receiving intensive care was unvaccinated.
During the press conference, Public Health encouraged indoor masking but shied away from imposing a mandate.
At the meeting this Tuesday (Sept. 14), the supervisors will consider Teeter’s original proposal to discuss whether to terminate the disaster proclamation or, as an alternative, agree upon what conditions must be met for it to be rescinded. (See note at the bottom of this story for more information on this week’s meeting.)
Teeter, whose district encompasses Paradise and other Ridge communities, said he recognized that “a lot has changed” since he brought the topic forward.
“What’s the criteria for the emergency—when does it end?” he told the CN&R. “It seems a lot of people survive it. It’s very sad for those that don’t. That’s why I’m all for a lot of the measures, if it can save a life. But we can’t keep closing down businesses forever.”
A brief county staff report on the topic lists the following areas to examine when determining whether to maintain or rescind an emergency related to COVID-19: labor market stabilization, school classroom closures, mask orders, congregate sheltering, rental assistance programs, enhanced unemployment benefits, COVID infection figures and the existence of state emergency declarations.
Butte County Chief Administrative Officer Andy Pickett told the CN&R that the county declared the emergency in order to qualify for financial assistance from the state and federal government to be able to respond to the disaster. It is strictly related to county operations. Since making this declaration, the county has received funding to create and expand important programs, including nutritional assistance and other social services, that the county otherwise wouldn’t have the means to provide, he said.
Pickett told the supervisors at a previous meeting that he was concerned that, should the county terminate the declaration, it could be audited by the state years later and have to return potentially millions of dollars in emergency funding.
“I look out for the organization’s well-being, and from that particular vantage point, there is no reason to end the proclamation right now,” he said. “The need is still here.”
Supervisor Tami Ritter agreed with Teeter’s assertion that reviewing the declaration is prudent. However, she told the CN&R that, given what is happening, it is clear how the county should proceed.
“We are moving in the wrong direction,” she said. “COVID cases are increasing, hospitalizations are increasing … we can’t just review it and say, ‘Well, we’re sick of this, we’re all tired of the pandemic and therefore we’re going to say there’s no emergency,’ when the numbers are telling us something completely different.”
Notably, Public Health’s long-standing local health emergency—which was put in place March 10 at the same time the countywide disaster proclamation was adopted—is not being considered for rescission. Ritter told the CN&R that it would be confusing for the public if the county rescinds its disaster proclamation: “How can we say we have a public health emergency if we don’t have an emergency in the county?”
Re-cover our faces?
Supervisor Debra Lucero, whose district encompasses west Chico and much of downtown, is moving in another direction in regards to what she’d like to see when it comes to pandemic response. She told the CN&R she will be proposing discussing an indoor mask mandate at the same meeting. She pointed to the current county statistics of skyrocketing cases.
“I don’t want to see our county move backwards. I don’t want to see our economy move backwards. I don’t want to see people more at risk,” she said. “It just seems to make sense.”
While Lucero is in favor of implementing such a policy, the mandate is typically under the purview of the county health officer, a position that was recently vacated by Dr. Robert Bernstein. While Butte County recruits a replacement, Dr. Ngoc-Phuong Luu—health officer for Yuba and Sutter counties—is filling in as interim health officer.
Though Public Health has strongly encouraged indoor masking, it has stopped short of a mandate. During a recent press conference, York said that Butte County leadership’s approach has been to follow the state’s lead and that her department will not make that call “in a vacuum.”
“Local public health and public health emergency has the authority to be more strict than the state,” she said. “Even though the local health officer does have that authority, we have chosen to be partners and work with our board of supervisors and other health care provider partners to have this discussion and make that decision together. It may come, it may not [come] in the long run. As of right now, though, we are following all state guidance and certainly encourage all organizations … to implement it for themselves and their facilities … as that added layer of protection.”
She referenced the stark divide on the issue: while many are clamoring for such a mandate, others are urging the county not to put any more restrictions in place, York said. The department has to weigh such stances carefully in discussions with various leaders, she added.
Additionally, the state’s gubernatorial recall election complicates the matter (in-person voting for the election also takes place on Tuesday). Those advocating for stricter mandates have criticized Gov. Gavin Newsom for not taking action in advance of the results of a race that is tighter than would ordinarily be expected. Should Newsom retain his seat, the state might very well implement a mask mandate, If so, the county will have to comply. Ritter told the CN&R she’ll speak up in support of Lucero’s proposal to discuss implementing a local mask mandate (supervisors only need one other “aye” to get an item on a future agenda).
During Public Health’s press conference on Sept. 1, county staff continued to emphasize the importance of vaccination. Spokeswoman Lisa Almaguer, who made a report on York’s behalf due to her illness, urged people to get the free COVID-19 vaccine and continue to take additional steps, including wearing a face covering indoors, washing hands often, staying home if feeling sick, getting tested if there’s a known exposure and avoiding groups where attendees’ vaccination status is unknown.
“This pandemic is far from over,” she said.
Butte County Supervisors meeting:
Tuesday, Sept. 14, 9 a.m.
Phone comments and registration must be received by 4 p.m. on Monday (Sept. 13) for those who want to comment live. Submit by phone (552-3303) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org), and register to speak at bcadmin.net/comments.
Butte County Supervisors Chambers, 25 County Center Drive, Ste. 205, Oroville