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San Diego COVID-19 Rate Improving But May Be Too Late To Prevent More Restrictions

File photo of a banner in the Gaslamp Quarter showing restaurant workers pledging to keep customers safe during the pandemic, Sept. 17, 2020.
KPBS Staff
File photo of a banner in the Gaslamp Quarter showing restaurant workers pledging to keep customers safe during the pandemic, Sept. 17, 2020.

San Diego County health officials have reported 174 new COVID-19 infections and six deaths tied to the illness, raising the region's totals to 43,619 cases and 754 deaths as the county waits to see if it will have to roll back business openings next week.

Of the 9,495 tests reported Thursday, just 2% returned positive — potentially a good sign as San Diego County appears poised to regress into the state's most restrictive public health tier due to increasing COVID-19 numbers by Tuesday, when state data is released.

However, as the data runs on a seven-day lag, it may be too little, too late to prevent moving to a more restrictive tier with Gov. Gavin Newsom rejecting a county effort Wednesday to discount the more than 700 positive tests recorded by San Diego State University since the semester began.


The county will find out Tuesday if it will slip back to the "purple" tier of the state's coronavirus reopening roadmap. If so, it would likely shutter indoor operations for restaurants, houses of worship and gyms, limit retail businesses to just 25% capacity and have major impacts on indoor business for most other industries until the county can improve its numbers.

RELATED: Governor Won't Exclude SDSU COVID-19 Cases From County Figures

Should the county be placed in that tier, it would have to wait a minimum of three weeks before moving back to less restrictive tiers.

Data released this week showed one of the two metrics the state monitors being flagged as "widespread."

SDSU is playing an outsized role in the county's 7.9 new daily cases per 100,000 population, the San Diego Public Health Officer, Dr. Wilma Wooten, said Tuesday. The positive testing percentage for the county is 4.5%, good enough for the "orange" tier of the state's four-tier reopening plan.


Should the county have a case rate higher than 7 next week, it could be moved into the purple tier — the most restrictive. However, if the numbers from the university were removed from the equation, San Diego County would suddenly drop below the mark to remain in the "red" tier.

County Supervisor Greg Cox said Wednesday he was writing a letter to Newsom to ask for considerations in excluding SDSU cases or for other alternatives to avoid rolling back business openings.

But Newsom said he isn't inclined to overlook the SDSU cases. The governor said the county can't separate cases at a university because it goes to "what a community by definition is — and that is integrated individuals, and as a consequence, you can't isolate as if it's on an island, a campus community that is part of the larger community. So the answer is 'No."'

County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said it was a difficult decision by Newsom, but the county had to do the best it could from here on out.

"We are in a battle against the coronavirus, not the state of California," Fletcher said Thursday. "Their public health experts looked at the situation in San Diego closely and made a decision that I understand and respect."

According to Dr. Eric McDonald, the county's epidemiology expert, the vast majority of those students live in the 92115 ZIP Code around the university — many just a few blocks off campus. He said that while it is true they are technically in the community at large, they are close enough to campus to make the county's request to exclude those positive tests from the countywide number a realistic endeavor.

SDSU reported 17 COVID-19 cases Thursday.

The university has not received any reports of faculty or staff who have tested positive, SDSU health officials said, nor have any cases been traced to classroom or research settings.

Four women and two men died between Sept. 11 and Sept. 15, and their ages ranged from early 60s to mid-90s. All had underlying medical issues.

Of the total cases, 3,366 or 7.7% have been hospitalized, and 791 or 1.8% have spent at least some time in intensive care units.

County health officials reported six new community outbreaks on Thursday. In the previous seven days, 20 community outbreaks were confirmed. Two of the new outbreaks were in business settings, one in a restaurant, one in a food processing setting, one in a residence and one in a grocery setting.

The number of community outbreaks remains above the county's goal of fewer than seven in a seven-day span. A community setting outbreak is defined as three or more COVID-19 cases originating in the same setting and impacting people of different households in the past 14 days.