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In aligning with state COVID-19 blueprint, Contra Costa will allow some industries to reopen

CONTRA COSTA COUNTY — In aligning its health order to match the state’s reopening blueprint, Contra Costa County will allow some businesses to reopen this week, according to county health officials.

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Starting Wednesday at 8 a.m., the county’s new rules will allow personal care services that involve close contact with people’s faces to operate outdoors, with the exception of tattoo and piercing, as well as nonmedical electrolysis. Racetracks and cardrooms can operate outdoors, too, in the county. Music, television and film production can begin again, as well as professional sports without a live audience.

Contra Costa is still in the “purple tier” of the state’s reopening plan, meaning that COVID-19 is still widespread. According to the data most recently published by the health department, the county’s rate of tests returning positive over the last seven days — including a seven-day lag on the information — is 4.1 percent. The average number of new cases in the county per day per 100,000 residents over the last seven days — also with a seven-day lag as information still comes in — is 6.8.

The county can move into the state’s next tier — the red tier — when the data shows sustained improvement for two weeks.

But without enough testing, the full data picture is incomplete, so county health officials indicated they will compel large health care providers to beef up testing.

The county is working on a health order now to require health providers to reduce certain barriers for testing, said county public health officer Dr. Chris Farnitano.

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“We are working on a health order to put a requirement on these large health providers to not only provide testing on request for essential workers and others at a higher risk,” Farnitano told the county’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. “But also to not put limits on how often you can get a test and not require a physician interview or visit to get a test.”

He explained that county public health officials have been trying to work collaboratively and encourage the community health providers to make testing more accessible for people, so they can get tested through their healthcare providers and not rely solely on the county’s testing sites. But, he said, these providers have not provided as much testing as the county would like.

“Kaiser is only doing about 18 percent of the tests in the county, but they cover about half the insured lives in Contra Costa,” Farnitano.

“We have been working collaboratively and trying to encourage these systems, but they’re not doing as much as we’d like so we’re working on a health order to make that a requirement,” he said.

The county has had to close its outdoor testing sites because wildfire smoke and extreme heat have made for bad conditions outdoors, said Contra Costa Health Services Director Anna Roth. Roth said county health officials are working to reopen sites indoors due to those conditions and in preparation for fall and winter weather.

Roth urged people to sign up to get tested at the county sites to help stop the spread of the virus.

August was the deadliest month in Contra Costa for COVID-19, with 55 fatalities. And more than half of those deaths — 58 percent — were people in the community and not in long-term care facilities, a change from previous months in which the majority of deaths had been people in nursing homes or assisted living facilities in the county.

Still, Roth explained, other statistics have prompted some optimism. Last week saw the lowest number of COVID patients in the hospital since July, with 62 people hospitalized. As of Monday, the seven-day average of hospitalizations was 67.

County residents who called into the meeting differed widely in their response to the COVID-19 update, with some urging the county to reopen faster and stop what one woman called an “emergency” of “irreversible learning delays” for school children doing distance learning instead of being in classrooms.

After a person who called in to say she was tired of being “micromanaged” by public health orders and refuses to wear a mask, Supervisor John Gioia urged people to care for others’ health.

“This is about respect for public health and other people’s health. We have to stop being selfish,” he said. “You’re not respecting other people when you don’t wear a mask.”

Other callers urged the county to do more to increase testing and express fear about reopening businesses.

Melvin Willis, a resident and a Richmond City Councilmember, said he “can’t shake this feeling around reopening.”

“We need to support our businesses and make sure they can provide services so they don’t go belly up, Willis acknowledged,” but pointed out that when businesses started to reopen early in the summer, cases increased and he fears that will happen again, as the winter months approach. “I don’t have a solution for it — I’m not a healthcare professional — but looking at what appened in July — I am highly concerned we are creating a short-term benefit that will have a long-term impact.”

Health officials have said that if cases surge, they may have to impose more restrictions once again.

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