COVID-19 · Fresno

Fresno Co. at risk of falling back to purple tier

Just one week after moving into the red tier, Fresno County is at risk to return back to the purple tier due to a slight increase in COVID-19 cases. 

California’s color-coded Blueprint for a Safer Economy offers four tiers that assess the spread of COVID-19 within a county: purple (widespread), red (substantial), orange (moderate) and yellow (minimal). 

On Sep. 28, Fresno County moved into the red tier after meeting the metrics of that tier for two consecutive weeks: a positivity rate under 8 percent and a daily case rate less than 7 per 100,000 residents. 

However, on Tuesday, the state released its weekly update to each county’s metrics. The state says that Fresno County has a positivity rate of 5.3 percent and a case rate of 7.2. Even though the positivity rate meets the red tier’s requirements, the high case rate means the county’s metrics fall in line with the purple tier. 

If the state reports next Tuesday that Fresno County’s metrics fail to meet the red tier once again, the county would revert back to the purple tier, meaning the various business reopenings and capacity allotment expansions over the past week would be revoked. 

Fresno County Interim Health Officer Dr. Rais Vohra said the county will have a three-day notice to revert all sectors back to following the purple tier guidelines. 

“If this trend continues, we may be looking at going back into purple, which no one wants,” Vohra said. “That would be tremendously disruptive. We would have to ask to close indoor operations again, and we certainly don’t want to go in that direction.” 

A move back to the purple tier means that all restaurants would have to once again shut down all indoor dining. Retail would have to limit capacity to 25% after being allowed 50% over the last week. 

In the red tier, gyms have been able to operate at 10 percent capacity, but the purple tier forbids gyms from operating indoors. 

Also, all places of worship would be required to close indoor services and move outdoors. 

“Our businesses have been real superstars in incorporating this fluid knowledge, this rapidly changing set of metrics, this somewhat fluid set of goal posts that the state has put down in order to keep us safe,” Vohra said. 

While the increased restrictions for businesses will potentially come back in play, the ability for schools to reopen if the county returns to the purple tier is a murky situation.

Under the state’s guidance, all schools are allowed to reopen once a county has been in the red tier for two consecutive weeks. As of now, schools are scheduled to have the green light to reopen on Oct. 13. 

The guidance does not specify what happens if a county reverts back to the purple tier – the category which forces students to stay home – on the same day that schools would first be granted the ability to reopen. 

The state’s guidance does say that schools will not be forced to shut down if they have already reopened when a county gets bumped to the purple tier. Fresno County’s specific situation that it might find itself in has not been addressed by the state.

“In terms of reopening 7-12, it’s not technically allowed while we’re in purple, so we’d really have to talk to the state and see how they’re looking at this when we move back from red to purple,” Vohra said. “There’s really nothing in writing that explains how school reopening is affected by that, but that’s really assuming that the schools have already reopened. 

“In a county like ours where schools haven’t reopened – but we slide back from red to purple – I’d have to ask the state and see how they want to handle something like this, whether they want us to slow down and delay for a few weeks and see which way our numbers go, or if there’s any other testing or some other steps that we need to put in place to go ahead and reopen, but to do so on a very cautious scale.” 

Elementary schools will still be allowed to apply for a waiver from the county and state to reopen, but grades 7-12 would be required to continue distance learning online. 

Of course, this can all be avoided if Fresno County posts coronavirus numbers next week that fall in line with the red tier. 

Interestingly – the state has not provided any explanation for this – the metrics that the state uses for each county are about two weeks old. For example, the data posted Tuesday comes from the week ending Sep. 26. 

This means that whatever progress or regression that takes place with the pandemic in Fresno County over the following week will have no bearing on the numbers that will be released next week. That data will come from the week ending Oct. 2. 

Rising hospitalizations

Although the state does not factor the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations into the reopening guidelines, Fresno County had been looking good in that category for quite some time. 

Those good fortunes appear to have stalled for the time being. The state reports that Fresno County has 107 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, up from a recent low of 73 on Sep. 26. 

Even though the number of hospitalizations has risen slightly, it’s still far off the peak of 313 on July 30, and the hospitals are not at a risk of being overrun. 

“It’s something we’re watching closely,” Vohra said. “We speak with our hospital partners all the time, and they feel like they’re in a position where they’re able to take care of the patients right now. But with flu season coming up, they know that those hospital beds get taken up very quickly with severe respiratory illnesses related to influenza and pneumonia and other winter time infections. 

“So we really need to be on our guard to make sure that coronavirus doesn’t impede our ability to take care of everyone who comes in during the winter.”

Daniel Gligich is a reporter for The San Joaquin Valley Sun, focusing on Fresno State Athletics and the southern San Joaquin Valley. Email him at daniel.gligich@sjvsun.com.