Cup of Joe, a coffee shop in downtown Roseburg, will be closed for a few weeks because the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in Douglas County has started hitting close to home for owner Joe Bardaville.
Bardaville made his decision before Gov. Kate Brown announced on Friday that all restaurants would have to go to takeout only as part of a two-week freeze called as COVID-19 cases continued to break records locally and statewide.
Bardaville’s aunt contracted COVID-19 at an assisted living facility and he was going to shut the business down for the weekend to help his family, but then people all around him started getting coronavirus diagnoses.
“This has been very hard on my mom so I decided to spend some time with her and help make arrangements,” he said. “During this time I was informed that multiple friends and neighbors were infected from a workplace cluster, and then another cluster, and another. Pop pop pop! It seems to me that the shutdown in March was an attempt to prevent this from happening, yet here we are.”
NUMBERS ON THE RISE
Douglas County Public Health Officer Bob Dannenhoffer said during a press conference Tuesday that it took Douglas County months to get to the first 40 cases but last weekend there were 46 cases in just two days.
In the week ending Nov. 7, there were 78 new cases. At the time that was a record-breaker. By Saturday, last week’s case total was already at a new record-smashing 148 new cases, a 120% increase over the previous week and a new weekly record. The total number of confirmed and presumptive cases of COVID-19 now stands at 613.
Ten Douglas County residents have died from the disease, their ages ranging from 61 to 88.
“Many of these people are younger than me, and I consider this to be young. So these are people who had long lives ahead of them and their lives have been cut short by COVID,” Dannenhoffer said.
The county has consistently had low case numbers when compared with state or national data, but the rapidly increasing numbers have local officials worried.
In the freeze Brown announced Friday, every restaurant in the state will go to takeout only, gyms will be closed, and individuals will only be able to hold get-togethers with six people or one outside household. They’ll also be required to wear masks. The new rules have teeth. As misdemeanors, violations are punishable by fines or even arrests, the governor said.
The governor said the new rules are an effort to flatten the curve in time to avoid hospitals becoming overloaded and having to turn away COVID-19 patients.
Also last week, the governor joined the governors of Washington and California in calling on people who travel between states to self-quarantine for 14 days.
ORGANIZING FOR A FIGHT
Behind the scenes, and despite initial low case numbers, county officials and the local healthcare community have been organizing for months.
The county government has already spent $2.5 million on the effort and has drawn the entire healthcare community into the fight.
“I literally called the CEO or the executive director of each healthcare organization in this county on their cellphone one day and asked them, ‘Would you come help us,’ and every single one of them said ‘Yes, what do you need,’” Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman said.
The county, unlike most, outsources its public health work to private entities. Key to that effort is the relatively new nonprofit Douglas Public Health Network. That organization has dramatically expanded from six employees to about 30, many of them engaged in aiding the more than 700 county residents who are in quarantine or isolation because they currently have the illness or have come into close contact with someone who has it.
Douglas County was one of the first to have a drive-thru COVID-19 test clinic, the first to have a call center and one of the few areas in the state where schools were able to open to in-person learning.
Dr. Jason Gray, chief medical officer at Mercy Medical Center, said the hospital has gone from two or three COVID-19 patients at a time to between eight and 11, but it has room for more.
The hospital has a current capacity for 130 patients, including 16 in intensive care unit beds. In a crisis situation, they could expand to hold 174 patients, he said.
County officials want to remind people to follow all safety precautions, such as wearing masks, social distancing, staying home when displaying symptoms of illness, no social gatherings and minimizing travel outside the county.
It’s a matter of science, not of politics, they said.
Freeman said it’s members of this community asking other community members to wear masks and maintain social distance.
“We don’t believe this disease is political. We don’t think the virus knows how you’re registered to vote,” Freeman said.
Scientists studying COVID-19 believe that mask-wearing alone could cut the number of deaths due to the disease by close to one-third.
“I think the data is really quite clear that masking does help, both to help you from spreading it, but also there’s increasing information that it helps to decrease your viral load and decrease your chances of getting the infection, or if you get it, to decrease the severity,” Dannenhoffer said.
Since this is a disease you can spread to others before you have symptoms, it’s important to keep those masks on whenever you’re around others not in your immediate household.
Most of the infections locally are spreading during gatherings — parties, dinners, weddings — where people have a tendency to take their masks down but shouldn’t, Dannenhoffer said.
Gray said he’s worn a mask for years in the operating room, and while it can feel uncomfortable at first, people adapt to it.
“Wearing masks is a sign of respect that I’m giving you, I’m giving others. I want to protect you,” he said.
Bardaville said he has a strict “mask-on policy” inside his shop.
“There are folks who don’t agree with that, and I am quick to point out that there are other places to get your coffee and breakfast sandwiches, but they will (hopefully) have the same strict mask policy to do their part to help slow the spread of COVID-19. My family is very important to me, and I have no plans to bury my mom this Christmas!” Bardaville said.
Dannenhoffer said last week that the problem for many county residents is they haven’t personally experienced the disease or had friends or family members who’ve sickened or died. But with those numbers rapidly changing, he said the impact will soon hit for many county residents.
Other places have already seen it, among them New York, where 33,398 had died as of Thursday. Dannenhoffer grew up in New York City and has family still there, so he’s heard first hand how devastating COVID-19 can be.
“My cousin is a cop, and during the really terrible times he spent his entire shift waiting at the doors of houses where somebody inside had died so somebody could pick up the body. For months this is what he did is stood in front of doors at apartments to wait for people to pick up the dead bodies,” he said.
It was necessary work because the coroner’s office was so backlogged.
“People in New York recognized how bad this was. We haven’t gotten there. We don’t want to have to replay that here so people do know people who have died and see them in the obituaries every day have the same kind of situation. But we can avoid it,” he said.
COVID-19 spreads even when people aren’t displaying symptoms, which means that people who come into contact with a person diagnosed with the illness will be asked to quarantine for 14 days.
“A local student was sick and went back to school before she was better. Had she waited a few days, she would have lost 3 or 4 days of school, but her class would not have been impacted,” Dannenhoffer said. “Unfortunately, she went to school and exposed 40 others. Now, those 40 others will need to be quarantined for 2 weeks and will miss a total of 760 days away from activity. In addition, those 40 families will need to take time away from work, school and activities to care for them. So, the economic impact of going back to school or work before you are well is enormous.”
Dannenhoffer said Tuesday that about half of the 700 people quarantining in the county at that time were doing so because of COVID-19 cases in schools. In Roseburg Public Schools alone, four adults tested positive for COVID-19 which led to 10 classrooms being asked to quarantine for a 14-day period.
There is some help available for people who need to stay home because of illness, especially when that turns out to be COVID-19 related.
The Oregon COVID-19 Temporary Paid Leave program is available to people who need to quarantine or isolate because of exposure to the novel coronavirus or are experiencing symptoms.
Any business with more than 50 employees will also be required to offer help under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Employers are to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19. This leave can also be used to help care for children who attend a school that is closed due to the pandemic.
As of Friday, several schools in Douglas County have decided to go back to distance learning because of the rising case numbers in areas they serve.
Roseburg Public Schools also changed course, continuing to educate fourth and fifth graders virtually rather than bringing into the classroom as originally planned.
“Our top priority continues to be the safety of our kids, our staff, and our community,” said Roseburg Public Schools’ Superintendent Jared Cordon. “Given the upward trend in COVID case rates and test positivity in Douglas County, it’s possible all districts may need to transition students to comprehensive distance learning.”
Dannenhoffer said many COVID-19 vaccines are in development, but the closest to being ready is one by Pfizer, which has shown a 90% success rate in trials.
Dannenhoffer said when the vaccine is ready to be distributed, Douglas County will be ready and working to get local people vaccinated. High-risk health care workers will likely be the first to receive the vaccine before it is distributed to others.
While there have been politically-based fears about a vaccine, Dannenhoffer said a group of western states has created an independent review panel. The panel includes top-notch medical minds, including some in California who he is familiar with and trusts.
“I think if the FDA says it’s safe, if these California people say it’s safe, I think we can be pretty sure it’s safe. And if I’m eligible, I’ll be the first in line,” Dannenhoffer said.
And despite some challenges regarding the distribution of the vaccine — the virus has to be kept at negative 112 degrees Fahrenheit, for example — Dannenhoffer was confident that the drive-thru clinics would be the most effective way to distribute the vaccine.
Freeman said Tuesday that since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been 85 drive-thru testing clinics.
While work continues on a vaccine, it is not anticipated to be released until the end of this year, and most recipients won’t be able to access it until some time in 2021.
So for now, local health officials urge residents to stay home, limit their interactions with people and wear masks.
For Bardaville, that means staying closed for the time being.
“I have family members with lung disease and lung cancer,” Bardaville said. “I am in no way trying to tell anyone how to live their lives. Closing my shop temporarily is the right thing to do, for me. And I will reopen as soon as I feel it is safe for me, for my customers, my neighbors, my family to do so.”