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State Returns Riverside County To Purple Tier, Supervisor Expresses Outrage

Traffic passes along State Route 371 entering the town of Aguanga, in Riversi...

Photo by Elliot Spagat / AP

Above: Traffic passes along State Route 371 entering the town of Aguanga, in Riverside County, Calif. on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

The California Department of Public Health on Tuesday returned Riverside County to the most restrictive purple tier under the governor's color-coded coronavirus regulatory scheme, meaning some businesses that have opened are supposed to close again — a move one supervisor said equals "putting the nail in the coffin" of some operations.

"Enough is enough," Supervisor Karen Spiegel said after hearing the county had been reclassified. "Our kids are suffering. Our businesses are suffering. We've got to find a way to step forward without hurting people. This is not OK."

According to Riverside University Health System staff, CDPH administrators decided that, based largely on low testing volumes, the county should be reduced from the red tier to the purple tier for at least three weeks. The county has been in the red tier for a month, permitting many businesses to reopen with limited capacities.

Kim Saruwatari, the director of the county's public health department, said the county's testing rate is currently 195.5 per 100,000 population. The state's threshold for large counties is 239.1 per 100,000. The other criterion for red tier status is a daily COVID-19 case rate of 7 per 100,000 or less. The county is at 8.4 per 100,000, with an adjusted rate of 9.1 per 100,000, which was applied because the county testing threshold was deemed unsatisfactory.

RELATED: San Diego County Leaders 'Sound The Alarm' As COVID-19 Case Rates Climb

Gov. Gavin Newsom's recently announced "equity" metric, which requires addressing testing and positivity rates in specific communities, is also weighing on the tier designation.

The county's overall testing positivity rate is 5.2%, which is down seven-tenths of a point compared to two weeks ago and well within red tier criteria, according to RUHS.

County Public Health Officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser warned that businesses not in compliance with purple tier restrictions have 72 hours to modify operations, including closing again, or risk fines issued by the county on behalf of the state.

Additional information on tier requirements can be found at covid19.ca.gov/safer-economy/.

"My frustration has turned to anger," Spiegel said. "We are way too far beyond this. Who in the heck is the governor? He is not a scientist ... We're going to be putting the nail in the coffin of more businesses."

She expressed support for the Great Barrington Declaration, which has been signed by upward of 10,000 physicians and scientists worldwide. The declaration calls for an end to blanket public health lockdowns, resorting instead to "focused protection" to end "the damaging physical and mental health impacts of prevailing COVID-19 policies."

The supervisor said it was time to safely reopen schools and permit businesses to continue with the phased reopening that began last month.

"We need to be protesting up to the governor and do something more than sitting back here," she said. "We have got to find an answer to get out of this."

Supervisor Jeff Hewitt, who has previously characterized the governor's and CDPH's criteria as arbitrary, said the most reliable metrics on the threat of coronavirus should be hospitalizations and deaths.

"The governor seems to come up with something new every week," Hewitt said. "At some point, we have to make some very hard decisions."

Hewitt introduced, and the board approved, a self-directed reopening plan on Oct. 6, but the timetable that the supervisor requested for allowing businesses to fully open was removed on a 4-1 vote because it would have conflicted with state mandates. The plan adheres to CDPH health safety parameters.

County CEO George Johnson was authorized to implement reopening policies outside of the state's schedule, but Johnson said more than $100 million in relief grants from the state would be at risk if the county moved independently.

According to county Emergency Management Director Bruce Barton, hospitalizations related to COVID-19 have been going "up and down," and there has been a slight upward trend in the last two weeks, which he attributed partly to infected state prisoners being hospitalized locally.

"There is no surge," Barton said. "No hospitals are asking for support."

He said 153 people are hospitalized for virus-related treatment, an increase of five since the end of last week, and that includes 43 intensive care unit patients — one fewer than Friday. All COVID-19 hospitalization counts are currently at or below levels reported in April.

The aggregate number of COVID-19 infections recorded since the public health documentation period began in early March is 64,075, compared to 63,284 on Friday, according to the RUHS.

The agency said the number of deaths believed to be tied to COVID-19 stands at 1,272.

The number of known active cases countywide is 4,845, an increase of 224 since Friday. The active count is derived by subtracting deaths and recoveries from the current total — 64,075 — according to the county Executive Office. The number of verified patient recoveries is 57,958.

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