LOS ANGELES -- In mid-May, Merced County Sheriff Vernon Warnke had a lot to say about California's stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of coronavirus, none of it good.
He posted a defiant message to Facebook saying he refused to enforce the state's orders because they meant "economic slaughter" and he believed government had no right to tell him or anyone else it was too risky to get a haircut or dental checkup.
"I truly believe that Governor Newsom's motivation is to have the majority of the citizens (and illegal residents) dependant (sic) on governments assistance so he could maintain this control once this 'pandemic' is declared over," Warnke wrote.
Two months later, with cases spiking and Merced County now on the state's coronavirus watch list, the sheriff has changed his tune: "Wear your masks, do your social distancing, wash your hands ... Please take it seriously."
Cases have more than quadrupled over the last month in Merced County, which reported 1,530 COVID-19 cases on Monday. On June 6, the county had reported just 343 cases.
COVID-19 has killed 11 people in Merced County since the pandemic began.
Merced County, in California's Central Valley, is one of 23 counties being monitored by the state for rising case counts and increased hospitalizations. Local public health officials say they worry that hospitals soon will be overwhelmed.
"The cases are rising coincident with opening businesses, the onset of the agricultural season, holidays, graduations, get togethers and mixed messaging that existed from different sources," Dr. Salvador Sandoval, the county health officer, told the Los Angeles Times in an email Monday.
Among concerns cited by the state are household and workplace infection clusters in Merced County among Latinos -- who, along with Black people, have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, becoming infected and dying at disproportionately high rates.
Merced County is 61% Latino, but that number swells during the agricultural season, Sandoval said. Overcrowded agricultural worker housing, poverty, insufficient availability of health information in Spanish, and employment in service jobs that require leaving home have contributed to high infection rates among Latinos, Sandoval said.