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Fight against COVID-19 hits wall of defiance, suspicion in rural California

Hailey Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

There is skepticism and defiance across the Golden State. But in California’s conservative northern counties — where a sense of rural abandonment by the state government has long had residents wanting to form a new state called Jefferson — the region is, in some ways, now a victim of its own early luck in the pandemic.

The virus was slower to spread in Northern California than densely populated urban locales farther south, and residents said the state was cracking down too hard on rural communities. In Modoc County, the first coronavirus case was not confirmed until late July. Its first death wasn’t until last month.

The Northern California region — which includes Del Norte, Glenn, Humboldt, Lake, Lassen, Mendocino, Modoc, Shasta, Siskiyou, Tehama and Trinity counties — has been the only one of the five state-designated regions to not be placed under a stay-at-home order based on hospitals’ intensive care unit availability.

But now the area, like the rest of the state, is seeing a postholiday surge in coronavirus infections. The region has 122 intensive care beds; as of Sunday, ICU bed availability was 24%.

If its ICU availability drops to 15% — which would trigger a stay-at-home order — that would mean there are only 18 beds across an area roughly the size of Indiana, not just for COVID-19 patients, but also for people suffering from heart attacks, strokes and trauma.

Four counties have no ICU beds at all: Glenn, Lassen, Modoc and Trinity.

 

“In the beginning, it was harder for people to appreciate the real risks to themselves because it seemed so far away in New York and L.A., but that’s not the case anymore,” said Dr. Gary Pace, the Lake County public health officer. “The numbers are up all around.”

In October, Lake County averaged about 33 new cases a week. In December, it averaged around 200.

For the two small hospitals there, the goal is often to stabilize patients needing specialized care before transporting them to bigger facilities, mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area, Pace said. There’s a trickle-down effect when those urban hospitals become full themselves.

“If we get a huge surge and we can’t transfer people out, we’re going to be in a heap of trouble,” he said. “We’ve been spending a lot of time and sleepless nights thinking about this.”

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