Tulare County rejoices in reopening, sees all-time low in cases

Tulare County sees their lowest cases and hospitalization since the pandemic began even before reopening last week

VISALIA – For more than a year Health and Human Services Director Tim Lutz has spent every Tuesday morning in front of the board of supervisors providing updates on the pandemic. But last Tuesday Lutz made it known that weekly briefings are no longer needed.

The state of California officially reopened on June 15, save for only a few requirements to help curb COVID-19. Cases and hospitalizations are the lowest they have been since the pandemic began. As of Monday, June 21 there are 106 total active cases, seven COVID-19 hospitalizations and a 1.2% positive test rate.

“Had the blueprint remained in the effect the county would have headed into the yellow tier,” Lutz said on June 15, noting that the county would be in the safest tier.

District 2 board supervisor Pete Vander Poel reminded the board that Gov. Gavin Newsom, and his administration had threatened to withhold COVID-19 relief funding for blatantly disobeying state orders, last year, and gave his praise to the county for persevering.

“The state called us out and called us out early…so kudos to our residents, kudos to the county and to every partner who helped to advance this county forward. Because I believe it is to be commended to go from worst to best and to do so in the span of a little over a year,” Vander Poel said.

Of course, the most contentious issue among residents, business and everyone in between had been when and where to wear a mask. After June 15 the state dropped their mask requirement for residents in most every situation. Up until late last week businesses were struggling with ambivalent California Occupation Safety and Health Administration (CalOSHA) guidelines.

COVID clarity for business

Lutz said the county had been watching closely as new information came to light. On Thursday, June, 17 CalOSHA issued some of their most concrete guidance in the recent past. According to AP News Fully vaccinated employees will not need to wear masks, except in locations like mass transit and classrooms, where they are required for everyone, or in the event of outbreaks.

AP also reported that physical distancing will also end except for certain workers during major outbreaks. Vaccinated employees won’t need to be tested or quarantine unless they show symptoms, even if they have close contact with an infected person.

Employers must document that workers who skip masks indoors are indeed fully vaccinated. But employers have the choice of requiring workers to show proof of vaccination or allowing employees to self-report their status, with the employer keeping a record of who does the latter. They also could decide to require everyone to remain masked — vaccinated or not. And vaccinated employees will still be able to wear masks if they choose without facing retaliation.

Visalia Chamber of Commerce CEO Gail Zurek said that businesses have been waiting for CalOSHA to made some sort of declaration that gives businesses guidance with reopening fully underway. But that is not the only question on their mind. Businesses in Tulare County, like others in the state and country, are having trouble finding labor.

“It’s affecting their quality of service, their hours that they can be open, and they’re very, very worried, as are we, about their ability to maintain positive customer relationships,” Zurek said.

Zurek encourages customers to go easy on reopening businesses. The chamber has issued signs and helpful social media posts to their members geared toward helping businesses educate their customers to be patient while they “ramp back up.” Zurek said in her “President’s Corner” column in the chamber’s Business Update monthly newsletter—distributed by this newspaper—businesses are right to be worried about their reputation because they don’t know what a lack of production could do to their long term standing in the community.

“If you haven’t already noticed, many businesses are having to reduce production. That could mean they can’t repair your car as quickly; maybe your favorite restaurant has reduced hours and entire days they’re closed,” Zurek stated. She went on to note that the cost of child care that vanished as a result of online learning and stay-at-home-orders has wrought conversations about when—or whether—to return to work.

Greatest weapon against COVID-19

Family HealthCare Network (FHCN) will continue to follow COVID-19 guidelines. In a press release last week they noted that masking will still be enforced along with social distancing policies for patients and staff.

FHCN continuing their policies beyond June 15 is no surprise. They are still a major distributor for the COVID-19 vaccine in addition to testing for Kings, Tulare and Fresno Counties.

“As a premier health care organization, our staff continue to be in the front lines of this pandemic and it remains critical that we continue to operationalize current policies to ensure the safety of our patients and staff,” Kerry Hydash, president and CEO said.

Before bowing out for the last time—barring any explosion of cases in the fall and winter—Lutz said that the vaccines are the most critical part of the strategy to quell the virus. As of Monday 180,357, doses have been administered in Tulare County.

“The variant strains will continue to emerge and gain dominance…our greatest weapon is still getting vaccinated that primes the immune system not only to beat covid quickly but increases the likelihood of mutated variant strains,” Lutz said.

Lutz expressed his gratitude to his supporting staff and said that he would be hard pressed to think of a department that did not help weather the pandemic. District 4 board supervisor Eddie Valero said that Health and Human Services (HHS) was a steadying hand in a turbulent time for the county.

“What wasn’t nebulous, what wasn’t challenging was our HHS staff that was always consistent, was always steadfast, and was always committed at the end of the day to the people, committed to the county, and just committed in a way that allowed us to get to where we are today,” Valero said.

To go along with Valero’s comments, Lutz reported some of the chief accomplishments by the county’s contact tracers during the major surge of cases in December and January. Tulare County’s tracers exceeded the state’s performance by 20-40% during the surge.

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