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San Diego County headed to more-restrictive tier because of SDSU cases

People line up for COVID-19 tests on the campus of San Diego State University.
People line up for COVID-19 tests on the campus of San Diego State University on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020 in San Diego, CA. The university has paused in-person instruction as it attempts to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
(Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

County health officer says region’s case rate needs to improve to avoid falling back

Data released Tuesday by San Diego County show that positive coronavirus tests among San Diego State University students were a decisive factor in putting the region at risk of becoming the first county in California to drop a level in the state’s reopening tier system.

San Diego County was listed with a new case rate of 7.9 in an updated report from the California Department of Public Health. It is a number far enough over the limit of 7.0 cases per 100,000 residents to trigger a fall, provided a similarly out-of-bounds number appeared in next week’s report.

SDSU cases drive up COVID rate in county

The state used a seven-day window from Aug. 30 through Sept. 5 to calculate this week’s rates, and an examination of county case counts for those days shows that if the 436 SDSU student cases that occurred were removed, the region’s rate would be 6.0.

More college students will soon begin resuming their studies in San Diego. University of California San Diego will begin repatriating an estimated 7,500 students this weekend with another 500 headed for the University of San Diego this weekend and 500 who arrived at Point Loma Nazarene University last weekend.

Local officials say they are scrambling to do what they can to avoid a second week with a case rate over 7.0, which would move the county into the most restrictive tier.

Such a regression would force restaurants, churches, movie theaters, museums and gyms to cease indoor activity.

Though the language leaves no wiggle room, it was clear Tuesday that Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s health and human services secretary, was not comfortable with such a move.

He said his organization is talking with county officials this week to “make sure that we’re taking some of the context of the counties into account.”

“We do empathize completely with the concern of business owners and the idea of opening up just a couple of weeks ago only to close back down, and that’s exactly why these conversations are so important between the state and the county leadership,” Ghaly said.

During Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Helen Robbins-Meyer, the county’s chief administrative officer, said that her office will pursue having all SDSU cases — now listed at a total of 676 including nine probable infections — removed from the state’s counts.

Supervisors said they support the move out of fairness to businesses impacted by restrictive public-health orders applied in ways that many have called inconsistent.

Supervisor Kristin Gaspar said the prospect of the county dropping a tier exposes a “fatal flaw” in the state’s reopening system. She said SDSU students are relatively healthy and, despite the hundreds of positive tests, have not been overwhelming local medical resources.

She said that she sent a letter to the governor on Friday highlighting the SDSU situation. As a result, she said she helped get Robbins-Meyer onto a “kitchen cabinet” of advisers from large urban counties in conjunction with the California State Association of Counties to discuss how the new state metrics do not work well for a county the size of San Diego.

“I believe the governor needs to see this holistic information and to better understand our unique approach,” she said. “San Diego County has done a good job.”

Robbins-Meyer said she had met with members of the kitchen cabinet the night before, and learned that many other counties were closely watching San Diego’s situation.

“They’re at a tipping point of, ‘Where do we start to break from the governor?’” she said, adding that the cabinet members discussed how a one-size-fits-all for all counties is not working.

San Diego State held a news conference Tuesday afternoon at which its executives announced a new mandatory coronavirus testing program for all students now living on campus.

The program is set to start Wednesday, more than three weeks after SDSU began its fall semester. Free testing on a voluntary basis has been available since Aug. 11.

From Wednesday through Saturday, the university will begin testing the 2,400 students living in its residence halls and apartments with a goal of about 500 tests per day. SDSU says it also will continue to encourage students who live off campus to get tested.

About 75 percent of the confirmed infections have involved people living off-campus. Many live in the College Area neighborhood.

The increasing number of cases at San Diego State is getting national attention.

A New York Times database says that SDSU has more students infected with COVID-19 than the other 56 colleges and universities it is monitoring in California. The database is through Sept. 10.

SDSU officials said Tuesday the campus has worked hard to protect public health.

“We intentionally and significantly reduced our in-person capacity this fall in the classroom and in our campus housing and by restricting gatherings and in-person events, even for our most long-established and cherished traditions,” said Luke Wood, SDSU’s vice president for student affairs and campus diversity.

“What we have announced today is really a testament to our ability to adapt and to adapt quickly.”

SDSU says it has been using private security, campus police and some of its administrators and managers to patrol student areas. Wood said Tuesday that the university is pursuing several suspensions as a result of its enforcement actions, but declined to provide specific numbers.

Throughout the morning and into the afternoon, about 90 members of the public called in with comments about the shutdown, with many asking board members to support Supervisor Jim Desmond’s efforts to create more local control that would allow San Diego County businesses and activities to reopen.

After the public hearing, Desmond made a motion to have the county continue to enforce public-health protocols in businesses, but not to enforce which businesses should be closed. That enforcement would be handled by the state, he said. The motion failed.

Small business owners and operators of beauty salons and tattoo parlors were among people making a plea to let them reopen.

Many callers used similar language in their arguments with claims that the closures were unconstitutional and complaints of shifting state guidelines.

In one of the most emotional pleas of the day, a woman said she had voted for Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, a Marine veteran, but now saw him as an enemy of the people because he was not defending the Constitution. The caller said she was under such stress that she had reached out to a suicide hotline.

Not all comments were in favor of easing the shutdown. A woman from the College Area said she had recovered from COVID-19 and questioned whether people thought her life was worth saving over the urgency to reopen businesses.

Paul Hegyi, CEO of the San Diego County Medical Society, also called to urge the board not to rush decisions about reopening.

“I cannot stress enough how reckless this would be,” he said, instead asking the board to target closures of businesses if there is evidence that they are contributing to the spread.

That statement came after Ray Major, chief economist for the San Diego Association of Governments, said the county’s gross regional product can be expected to drop by $15 billion to $20 billion this year as a result of government-ordered shutdowns.

That includes an estimated 200,000 local residents out of work due to COVID-19, a 95 percent reduction in business travel, and $4.5 billion to $5.5 billion in lost wages.

“This essentially wipes out any of the gains that we’ve made in the last two years,” Major said.

Updates:

9:34 AM, Sep. 16, 2020: This story has been updated to include information from the top state health officer and additional information from the San Diego Board of Supervisors


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