Keeping COVID in Mind While Under Wildfire Evacuation Orders

COVID-19 transmission continues to stabilize in the state, California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said at a briefing Tuesday. The California Department of Public Health's latest report shows 4,480 newly confirmed coronavirus cases and 105 fatalities on Monday. The seven-day positivity rate is 5.7%.

Ghaly noted that 136,000 Californians are currently under evacuation orders, with more than 3,300 placed in hotels or shelters. Because of COVID-19 concerns, he said, shelter staff are placing cots at least 6 feet apart, conducting temperature checks and requiring that most people wear masks.

Ghaly said that for those near the fires, N95 masks may be more appropriate than the cloth face coverings many people are wearing to curb coronavirus transmission, as those won't provide enough protection against the inhalation of wildfire smoke. His advice for people in smoke-affected areas who have not been told to evacuate: “Stay home as much as you can. Keep your doors closed, and your windows shut. If you need the air conditioning, use it prudently.”  

Ghaly reminded those staying with friends or family whom they haven’t seen in a while to not let their guard down and to follow precautions: covering their face, practicing social distancing, and frequently washing their hands with soap and water.

For general information about COVID-19, plus information about how to access services related to evacuations and fires, the public can call 1-833-422-4255.

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— Polly Stryker @hamrashaar 

California, Oregon, Hawaii and Washington State Lawmakers Urge Congress to Provide $100 Billion in Rent Relief

State lawmakers from the Bay Area joined their fellow legislators from Oregon, Hawaii and Washington to urge Congress to provide $100 billion in immediate national rent relief in light of the pandemic.

That's the amount Democrats argued for in the House-passed Heroes Act stimulus package, while Senate Republicans critique that proposal as spending too much — and the two sides remain deadlocked.

The letter sent to Congress Monday was signed by six senators and representatives who chair committees on housing in their respective states, including the Bay Area's own state Sen. Scott Wiener and Assemblymember David Chiu, both representing San Francisco.

Pandemic-related joblessness has rocked Western states, and more than 11 million people across the West may be unable to pay their rent this winter, the housing-focused lawmakers wrote.

"Immediate action is needed to prevent a massive eviction crisis that could impede our ability to curb the transmission of COVID-19," they wrote.

"Having a group of states ban together, and having housing leaders in those legislatures come together to say, 'Please help us,' I think is very powerful," Wiener told KQED.

Nationally, renters are facing the looming expiration of federal eviction protections. California has its own set of eviction protections for those facing financial hardship from the pandemic, however, that last until the end of January.

Extending those protections is crucial to helping tenants, Chiu said, but "the ultimate solution here is to give people money so they can pay their rent."

Chiu added, "If we don't figure this out, we will not only see a massive wave of evictions, but we'll see a skyrocketing wave of homelessness."

Those tenant protections were widely criticized this year for not going far enough and not providing mortgage help for homeowners or landlords.

— Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez (@FitztheReporter)

More Than 200 Berkeley Racetrack Workers Test Positive for COVID-19

More than 200 people at an East Bay racetrack have tested positive for the coronavirus as the number of cases statewide surges to its highest levels since the start of the pandemic, health officials say, calling it a “significant outbreak.”

At the racetrack in Berkeley, officials said they have temporarily stopped transporting horses and staff from Golden Gate Fields to try to try to limit further spread of the virus. The track temporarily suspended live racing operations on Nov. 13 after 24 cases were reported.

Aidan Butler, chief strategy officer of track owner The Stronach Group, told the California Horse Racing Board that 95% of the people who tested positive are asymptomatic, the San Jose Mercury News reported Sunday.

“Unfortunately, that is the reason, I believe, this got out of control because no one was too sick for the most part,” he said.

Even before the Thanksgiving holiday that has many health officials concerned about increased gatherings, the California Department of Health and Human Services reported more than 15,000 cases in the state Saturday, by far the highest level since the pandemic began in March. Another 14,000 cases were recorded Sunday.

California’s average daily number of coronavirus cases has tripled in the last month, the Los Angeles Times found in an analysis, while COVID-19 hospitalizations have doubled in the same time period.

A curfew that affects most of the state took effect Saturday requiring people to stay home from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. unless they are responding to an emergency, shopping for groceries, picking up takeout or walking their dogs. The monthlong curfew could be extended if rapidly worsening trends don’t improve.

— Associated Press, Marco Siler-Gonzales (@mijo_marco)

SF Faces Purple Tier as COVID-19 Cases Surge

San Francisco could be forced to enter the more restrictive "purple tier" of the state's reopening blueprint by this Sunday as it faces a spike in COVID-19 cases.

That means the city would join most other counties facing an overnight curfew, which the state announced Thursday. Currently, 41 counties, which represents about 94% of California’s population, are in the purple tier and will be under a limited stay-at-home order from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. beginning Saturday, Nov. 21 and lasting for a month. Six Bay Area counties are currently in the purple tier.

San Francisco is currently in the less restrictive red tier, but just three weeks ago the city was in the least restrictive yellow tier.

"This is indicative of how fast the virus is spreading in our city," said Dr. Grant Colfax, director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

Colfax said weekly coronavirus cases have nearly tripled over the past month. “But we can change the course of this surge," he said. “We have done this twice and we can do it again. After all, we are San Francisco and we have shown the country how to fight COVID.”

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If San Francisco does enter the purple tier, indoor gyms would close, as would museums, movie theaters and houses of worship. Retail businesses that remain open would face more limited capacity.

Asked what is triggering the surge in San Francisco, Colfax said he wasn't sure, but people may have become complacent with the city's relative low number of cases. He also said more businesses reopening likely led to increased spread of the virus.

Colfax warned that if San Francisco continues on this trajectory, models show the city’s hospitals could become overwhelmed, with hundreds of people in hospitals by the end of December or early January.

Colfax urged people to avoid traveling or gathering with those outside their household for next week's Thanksgiving holiday.

— Tara Siler (@SilerTara)

California Nurses Union Warns Hospitals Aren't Prepared for COVID-19 Surge

As the state heads into a winter surge of COVID-19 cases that experts say could overwhelm hospitals, the California Nurses Association is once again sounding the alarm that hospitals are not ready for the predicted spike in cases.

CNA President Cathy Kennedy told KQED on Wednesday that hospitals don’t have enough personal protective equipment, and that she’s worried front-line health care workers will die.

“We're very, very concerned,” Kennedy said. “If you don't have the staff, the nurses, the health care workers, because they have been exposed and unfortunately die, who's going to take care of the patients?”

But officials with the California Hospital Association, which represents hospital management around the state, said unions are unfairly placing the blame on the hospitals when the problem stems from a global shortage of medical supplies and personal protective equipment.

“There are two critical elements in providing care in this COVID-19 crisis. First and foremost, staffing. And second, the personal protective equipment,” said Carmela Coyle, president and CEO of the CHA. “Unfortunately, we are experiencing shortages of both.”

Coyle said that in addition to international manufacturers' inability to keep up with demand for medical supplies, many hospitals are experiencing staffing shortages as travel nurses get pulled in too many directions.

— Julie Chang (@BayAreaJulie), Monica Lam (@monicazlam)

SF Opens New COVID-19 Testing Site at Alemany Farmers' Market, Relocated From SoMa

San Francisco city officials opened a new COVID-19 testing site at the Alemany Farmers' Market on Tuesday as part of the city's strategic testing program, according to a press release.

Testing resources at the new location were moved from the CityTestSF site in the South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood due to heightened need in the southeastern area of the city.

"Equity has been a priority for us throughout the pandemic, and part of having an equitable citywide response to COVID-19 means that we redirect our resources where there's the most need," said Mayor London Breed in a statement.

According to the release, more than 5,800 people are tested for COVID-19 every day across all of San Francisco, with the city administering and funding 55% of those tests.

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“As we experience a surge in cases in the city, the region and the nation, we must manage our public testing resources in the most efficient ways possible to slow the spread of the virus," said Dr. Grant Colfax, director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health. "Re-allocating these testing resources to the area of the city with highest rate of infection is critical to our response to the virus.”

Officials also caution against attempting to get a test before any planned holiday travel, saying "during this current surge, city resources will not support testing for travel or visitations."

The Alemany testing site provides both walk-up and drive-through COVID-19 tests five days a week. Site hours are:

  • Monday: 12:30 p.m. — 4:30 p.m.
  • Tuesday - Thursday: 8:30 a.m. — 4:30 p.m.
  • Friday: 8:30 a.m. — 12:30 p.m.

Find more using KQED's map of free, public COVID-19 testing sites, no insurance required.

— Michelle Wiley (@MichelleEWiley)

California Attorney General Challenges Court Order to Cut San Quentin Population in Half

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has appealed a ruling that would force San Quentin State Prison officials to cut the incarcerated population by 50% to prevent further outbreaks of COVID-19.

An Oct. 20 decision by the First District Court of Appeals found that San Quentin’s warden and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation acted with deliberate indifference to the health of inmates by failing to reduce the population as recommended by a team of medical experts who toured the prison in June as the coronavirus began to sweep through the incarcerated population.

But in a petition to the California Supreme Court late Monday, Becerra’s office argued that “the appellate court too narrowly focused on one proposed COVID-reduction strategy” of “immediate mass decarceration” to the exclusion of other measures for slowing the spread of the virus.

The petition stated that those strategies, including erecting tents and converting gyms and other space at San Quentin into housing to allow greater social distancing and isolation of infected inmates, were recommended by the federal receiver in charge of medical care.

More than 2,500 inmates and staff at San Quentin have tested positive for the coronavirus and 29 have died since the beginning of the pandemic.

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— Julie Small (@SmallRadio2)

SF Disaster Workers to Inspect Schools Before January Reopening

This week, San Francisco announced it would reopen schools in January, but there's a lot of work to do before that can happen, city officials said.

Twenty disaster service workers are helping the San Francisco Unified School District assess school buildings to make sure they’re ready to open safely. That includes checking every classroom for proper ventilation and making sure every sink for hand-washing is available.

Although the school district has a target date of Jan. 25 of next year to open classrooms to the city’s youngest and most vulnerable students, they still need to inspect 65 buildings.

Dawn Kamalanathan, chief facilities officer for the SFUSD, said "that data is critical for helping us understand the magnitude of the problem-solving that might have to occur at certain sites and across the district.”

She said the assessments for the remaining schools should be complete by December.

Other challenges remain, however, like finalizing labor agreements with teachers unions and setting up COVID-19 testing sites at each campus.

During a school board meeting last week, San Francisco Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer said The mayor’s office should have done more, sooner, to coordinate different departments in the city.

"It is the power of the office of the mayor to convene these parties together, lets get everyone in the room together and see how we can open schools and what is needed from whom,” Fewer said.

The district estimates the costs to reopen could reach $65 million.

— Marco Siler-Gonzales (@mijo_marco)