Mono’s January Covid rates are some of worst in state and... a new virus variant was recently identified in Mono

By: 
Wendilyn Grasseschi
Times Reporter

Mono County is making a name for itself for all the wrong reasons – a very high Covid-19 test positivity rate of between 18-22 percent; a number which has consistently ranked as one of the worst in the state, according to Mono health officials.

In fact, in the week ending on Jan. 9, the county saw 111 positive tests, the highest in the entire state except for one other county, San Benito.

For context, the state overall has a test positivity rate of about 12 percent, they said.

That said, the good news is the county’s death and hospitalization rate remains extremely low compared to many counties and the state overall. Since the pandemic started, the county has seen four deaths and the county’s hospitalization rate has remained almost consistently at about two to three percent, compared to a national hospitalization rate of about 12 percent. While it is not clear why the county’s Covid patients do not end up in the hospital as much as their counterparts in other states or counties, local medical providers think it could be the younger and healthier demographic of Mono County; Inyo County has a much older demographic than Mono does, and it has a senior care center. That could be why the county had seen 27 deaths as of earlier this month, compared to Mono’s four.

But for those hoping those latter statistics might trigger getting the county out of the current Stay at Home order and into a Purple Tier where there could be some more business activity and possibly school openings, not so fast, said Tom Boo, the county’s public health director.

“To open Mammoth Unified, we have to get below 25 positive test cases for every 100,000 people and right now, we are well over 100,” he said Tuesday, speaking to the Mono County Board of Supervisors. “Once we do that, we can open some businesses and we can think about opening K-6th grade (to some in-person teaching), he said. “So, it is not looking like this is in our immediate future. ... and, we then have to get to the Red Tier to consider opening the Middle and High schools.”

Another challenge to getting the county’s case numbers down is something that was just identified by genomic testing this past week; a new strand of the Covid-19 virus which was found in several counties in California, including Mono County. This variant is not the same as some of the other variants that the county and world have been trying to adapt to; it is something different.

“We didn’t know about this until this week,” he said. “We did learn that of the specimens found in the month of December (some) were found here, in Mono County.”

The new mutation is so new, no one is clear on exactly how it operates, although the early indications are that the variant is not more lethal nor does it induce more sickness, he said. It does, however, seem to be more contagious than the original Covid-19 virus, just like the other, newer variants identified recently in the United Kingdom and other parts of the world, a fact which could, if the new variant takes even deeper hold in the state and county, minimize some of the most recent gains made in the fight against Covid; i.e. a ramping up vaccination effort and new methods of healing those with Covid-19.

“So, we are still unclear of the significance,” Boo said. “But this new strain is of grave concern regarding the issue of transmissibility, if it persists. Even if it is not more deadly, if it is more contagious, this means more deaths and more disruption to our lives, with some of the mitigations we have learned in 2020 not being as effective as they were then.”

For example, he said there is anectdoctal evidence of more people getting infected outside, something that was considered rare with the original Covid virus.

The second issue that alarms him and other health care providers is the worry that the new variants might not be as vulnerable to the current vaccines and the current Covid treatments, such as monoclonal antibody treatment, he said. There is not yet proven evidence of this, but as each of the mutations are on the spike proteins of the virus and the vaccine targets those spikes, there is urgent work to do to make sure the vaccines will neutralize the virus, he said.

And, there is yet another challenge; the vaccine supply itself, which is limited, he said. Another is the sheer complexity of getting everyone who wants a vaccine in the county their two required vaccines within the correct timeframes.

“The situation with the vaccine supply remains extremely serious,” he said. “Right now, until we know more, or if, regarding the variant issue, we think the vaccine is still the route out of this pandemic, but the supply is the limiting factor.

As noted in national reporting, California, like most other states, was expecting a big influx of the vaccine after being told by the Trump administration that it would release the doses it had held back last week. However, it turned out that there were no more doses in a storage area somewhere, something that states found out just this past week.

While state governors are seeing red over what they consider to be duplicity or outright lies from the administration, the bottom line is as of now, access to the Covid vaccine could get even more constrained than it has been.

Boo said the only thing to do is to move on and continue to vaccinate as many people in the county as possible every week, working through the Phases of the vaccine delivery recommendations as best the county can.

He said so far, the county has administered about 1,200 doses, with as much of the 3,000 doses going out this week and into the coming weeks as fast as possible. To that end, the county health department has been holding clinics for people ages 65 and older, educators and childcare workers and more and is moving into food services and others soon.

The county is also working to scale up its outreach efforts; besides the county pre-registration site (see below), the county health department is going to set up a phone line for reaching out to and signing up, people who are not internet saavy or connected, perhaps as early as this week, Boo said.

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE
• To pre-register for a vaccine appointment, go to https://coronavirus.monocounty.ca.gov/pages/vaccinations and sign up. You will be emailed or called for an appointment as soon as your Phase assignation is opened and the vaccine is available.
• For much more on the local vaccine situation, go to mammothtimes.com in the next few days for an updated story on the vaccine program in Mono County.

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