Coronavirus cases hit 400 at San Diego State

Signage for mask wearing at SDSU on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020 in San Diego, CA.
Signage for mask wearing at SDSU.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

County teeters on the edge of a case rate that could tumble the region back to the lowest level


The number of San Diego State University students who tested positive or were considered probable for coronavirus infection hit 400 Tuesday as the region narrowly retained its current tier in the state’s new reopening hierarchy.

Though it added 114 additional student cases since the weekend, SDSU also announced late Tuesday afternoon that it has granted itself a bit of a reprieve from the four-week “pause” of all in-person instruction announced last week when the number of students getting sick started to increase rapidly.

Though most of the more than 7,000 students now living on or off campus will continue to participate only in virtual learning, students enrolled in 20 courses said to have “very specific accreditation and licensure requirements” that require specific numbers of “in-person hours” will resume under full personal protection and social distancing protocols Thursday. A list of the courses — ranging from cardiopulmonary therapeutics to hearing amplification — is available on the SDSU registrar’s website. For the most part, the university said in a statement, these are upper division classes with small enrollments, usually fewer than 10.

Though the cases have shot up quickly since SDSU started its fall semester on Aug. 24, the consequences have been much less severe for students than they have been for the general population. A county official confirmed by email Tuesday evening that none of the 396 students who have so far tested positive, and four more whose symptoms make infection probable, have required hospitalization.

Campus officials were said to be unavailable to discuss the trends beyond the university’s short written statement.

Off campus, the COVID-19 picture was mixed Tuesday.

After four straight days posting new case numbers greater than 300, and two greater than 400, new case totals fell to 216 and 211 Sunday and Monday. Local COVID-related hospitalizations remained under 300.

But the local effects of the pandemic continue to be felt most acutely among the most vulnerable.

Two additional deaths were included in the latest tracking report, one Sunday and one Monday. Both were older than age 80, had other medical problems and died on Aug. 26.

Further progress toward fully reopening local businesses and other organizations looked like a struggle with the release of the state’s new tier report, which is now said to arrive every Tuesday, giving each county in the state a readout on where they sit in the four-tier color-coded continuum that gradually allows greater freedom if regions can keep their numbers low.

Tiers are defined by each county’s performance in two key numbers, the percentage of local tests coming back positive, and the number of cases per 100,000 residents.

To remain in the red tier, the county’s average number of positive tests per 100,000 must average no more than 7 per day and the positive rate must not exceed 8 percent. Last week, the state announced that San Diego County’s inaugural numbers in the new program were 5.8 cases per 100,000 and a positive rate of 3.4 percent.

This week’s report saw those two numbers increase to 6.9 and 4.3 percent, respectively.

While the positive rate is not really much of a concern, it’s still low enough to qualify the region to move up to a less-restrictive tier, the case rate is now perilously close to hitting 7.1 cases per 100,000 residents. If that was the number for two consecutive weeks, San Diego would fall to the lowest tier and many recently-lessened restrictions would tighten again.

In order to remain in the red tier, San Diego County would need to average fewer than 237 new cases per day as tallied not by the day they are announced to the public but rather by the day that each infection is believed to have started. The current rate of 6.9 per 100,000 per day equates to an average of 233 cases per day, as measured during the final week of August, leaving very little breathing room for the next report, which will calculate a new rate by sliding the period used for this weeks report forward in time by seven days.

There is, however, a wrinkle that could allow the county to average more than 237 cases per day and retain its current tier.

The state adjusts case rates based on whether a county is testing its residents at a broader or narrower rate than the state as a whole. Those that do more testing have their case rates adjusted downward, while those who test less than average see their rates increased.

San Francisco County has already benefited from this program. Though it had 7.8 cases per 100,000 residents in the latest report, a number that would put it in the lowest tier, the county’s rate was adjusted down to just 5.1 because it has performed 411 COVID tests per 100,000 residents, a number that far exceeds the state average of 218 per 100,000.

San Diego has had no such luck.

The state miscalculated the state’s rate, setting it at 133 per 100,000 in Tuesday’s state tier report. Had it been accurate, the rate would have been low enough to earn the region a 10 percent penalty on its case rate, bumping it from 6.9 to 7.9, a number that would mean moving down a tier if it continued for two consecutive weeks. Using daily testing data reported by San Diego County to calculate the proper number, San Diego earned no modifier to its basic score of 6.9.

In its official report, the state notes that San Diego County would be held harmless “due to data issues;” however, neither the county nor the state elaborated Tuesday on precisely what those issues were.