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Fresno County’s COVID-19 numbers went the wrong direction this week, though officials continue to eye a move into the state’s orange tier by April 21 — the soonest possible date for a move into the less restrictive designation.

Photo of Gavin Newsom

“We are not anticipating in the short run lifting the mask mandate.”– Governor Gavin Newsom

The California Department of Public Health announced they’ve now administered more than 20 million vaccine doses, including 4 million in the state’s hardest-hit communities. The accomplishment triggered a loosening of the metrics required for individual counties to move through the state’s color-coded tier system.

Cases in Fresno County per 100k residents went up from 8.2 to 8.4 last week. Even with the relaxed metrics, Fresno’s case rate would need to drop to between 2.0 and 5.9 new cases per 100k population.

Fresno County’s case positivity rate remained unchanged at 3.8% week over week. Case positivity rates in the county’s most vulnerable populations worsened a bit from 4.3% last week to 4.5% this week.

Last week, Fresno County Assistant Health Director David Luchini said “We are looking forward to the importance of keeping that health equity positivity rate under 5%. The World Health Organization has also mentioned that when you’re under 5% positivity rate, that also means you have better control of the virus in your community.”

Tracking COVID-19 numbers in Fresno County since February 23. (Fresno County Health Department)

Scrapping the Color Coded System

Meanwhile, state officials announced plans to scrap the color coded tier system altogether by June 15 if everything goes according to plan.

To do so, these criteria need to be met:

  • If vaccine supply is sufficient for Californians 16 years and older who wish to be inoculated; and
  • If hospitalization rates are stable and low

But, don’t put away that mask yet — the state has no plans to rescind that mandate for the foreseeable future.

“We are not anticipating in the short run lifting the mask mandate,” Governor Newsom said during a late morning news conference in the Bay Area.

Everyday activities will be allowed and businesses can open with common-sense risk reduction measures, including encouraging all Californians to get vaccinated and mandating masking, to prevent illness and promote health.

The state will continue contact tracing and testing to detect cases early and contain spread of the virus.

The entire state will move into this new phase as a whole. The state will monitor hospitalization rates, vaccine access and vaccine efficacy against variants, with the option to revisit the June 15 date if needed.

In a Tuesday update, the California Department of Public Health added an additional metric that will be reviewed before a county moves to a more restrictive tier. During the weekly tier assessment, if a county’s adjusted case rate and/or test positivity has fallen within a more restrictive tier for two consecutive weeks, the state reviews the county’s most recent 10 days of data – and now, also hospitalization data, to determine if there are signs of improvement to indicate the county can remain in the less restrictive tier.

Tulare County Moves to Orange

Tulare County is now within the lesser restrictive orange tier.

In a tweet, the Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency says it’s, “due to declining COVID case metrics and increased vaccination efforts.”

Under the orange tier, restaurants can open indoor with modifications and a capacity of 50% and bars can open outdoors with modifications. Movie theatres are also allowed 50% capacity or 200 people, whichever is fewer.

Variants Remain a Concern

The UC Davis Genome Center reports it has identified the first known case of the B.1.351 (South African) variant of the COVID-19 virus in Yolo County. Officials say this variant is more contagious, with a 50 percent higher transmission rate.

“The detection of the B.1.351 variant is concerning given its high transmissibility and studies in the lab that show that vaccines may not work as well against this variant,” said Dr. Aimee Sisson, Yolo County Public Health Officer in a press release.

Newsom says the vaccination campaign is in a race with the variants.

It’s developments in the emergence of COVID-19 variants that have one leading epidemiologist re-evaluating his own advice.

Dr. Michael Osterholm is the Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

“Please understand, this B.1.1.7 variant is a brand new ball game,” Osterholm said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “All the things that we had planned for about kids in schools with this virus are really no longer applicable. We’ve got to take a whole new look at this issue.”

GV Wire℠ asked Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly if he was worried about all the students returning to classrooms and whether that could impact his plans to open the state up by June 15.

“We’re keeping a close eye on this, and that’s why we continue to support schools and other places where kids spend time by ensuring that the adults and those around them that are eligible for vaccine do get vaccinated at the earliest chance possible,” answered Ghaly. He also says the state continues to plan for rigorous testing at schools to track the immediate progression of any outbreak.

Ghaly says the predominant variant in the state continues to be the ‘West Coast’ or ‘California’ variant.

“Nearly 60 percent, maybe even over 60 percent of those (California) cases have been positive for that variant,” said Ghaly.

Vaccination of Californians Under 16 Years of Age

California continues to plan for the vaccination of Californians under 16 years of age.

“We look forward to the FDA, we hope, approving soon the ability to get our 12 to 16 year olds vaccinated,” says Ghaly.

Pfizer announced Mar. 31 that its Covid-19 vaccine was 100% effective in a study of adolescents ages 12 to 15. “We share the urgency to expand the authorization of our vaccine to use in younger populations and are encouraged by the clinical trial data from adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15,” said Pfizer Chairman Albert Bourla in a statement.

Bourla expects the company to submit the data to the FDA as a proposed amendment to their Emergency Use Authorization in the coming weeks. The hope is to start vaccinating this age group before the start of the next school year.

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