As Tulare County saw its 1,500th COVID-19-related death on June 30, disease metrics remain stubbornly high across the region, with new case and positivity rates near or exceeding other surges since the pandemic started in March 2020.
And as new highly contagious variants of the coronavirus sweep the nation — the CDC reported in late June that new variants BA.4 and BA.5 comprised 52% of the new COVID-19 cases in the United States in late June — local health officials say Tulare County residents should still be on guard against COVID-19.
As of July 1, Tulare County’s new case rate is 25.6 per 100,000 and 15.7 positivity rate. The CDC says Tulare County is currently in an area designated to have “high” community COVID levels. The agency assigns the levels based on new cases and hospitalizations per 100,000 residents, plus the percent of inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients. The CDC urges anyone living in an area classified as having “high” levels to wear masks in public spaces and take other measures to avoid the virus.
The difference between this current summer surge and past increases in disease metrics? Local hospitals haven’t been overwhelmed with sick and dying patients.
It is believed that the decline in hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 are likely attributed to individuals having an immunity to the virus as a result of vaccinations, boosters and prior infections. Symptoms from the recent variants have also been less severe, said Karen Elliott, Tulare County Public Health Director.
“Hospitalizations and death can be lagging indicators, though it should be noted that hospitalizations have been increasing the last month, both locally and statewide,” Elliott said.
As of June 27, 37 confirmed COVID-19 patients hospitalized were reported in Tulare County, an 54.2% increase from 24 hospitalizations reported on June 6, Elliott said.
In addition, Elliott said, people who test positive for COVID-19 now have access to antiviral drugs, such as Paxlovid, that prevent severe illness.
“But the community must continue not to let their guard down and continue to take the steps that decrease the likelihood of contracting the virus — get vaccinated, wash hands frequently, wear masks in crowded or indoor settings, stay home if you are feeling ill,” Elliott said. “As the virus continues to mutate, we cannot be sure if another highly contagious and severe variation will be spread.”
Unvaccinated people have a six times higher risk of dying from COVID-19 compared with people with at least a primary series of shots, the CDC estimated based on available data from April.
Elliott pointed out that hospitalizations and deaths have always been a lagging indicator during the pandemic, so as more people get infected with this current wave, local hospitals could be stressed as they are forced to care for more people sick with COVID-19.
Elliott is also concerned about the effect of long COVID — people who suffer long-term ill effects from their infection — when considering local health care providers already struggle to care for people sick with diabetes, obesity, and other chronic health conditions in Tulare County.
People who have chronic conditions that can make a COVID-19 infection more severe should talk with their healthcare provider about having a plan in place for COVID-19 treatment, Elliott said.
“If there has been one constant, it is that this virus has continued to evolve, and we need to be prepared,” Elliott said. “While we hope hospitalizations stay low, preventing surges and severe COVID-19 illness will remain crucial to reduce the impact on our hospitals moving forward.”
Death and financial consequences
As Tulare County recorded its 1,500th COVID-19-related death, the region achieved another grim milestone: The county with the seventh highest death rate in California.
“We offer our sincere condolences to the friends and families who lost their loved ones due to COVID-19,” Elliott said. “It has been a difficult few years, and we hope to encourage our community to try and move forward with kindness towards each other.”
Why has Tulare County experienced so many COVID-19 deaths compared to the state and our region? Neighboring counties — Kings, Fresno, and Kern — all have lower death rates than Tulare County.
“Tulare County does have lower vaccination rates than much of the state, leaving many less protected from severe COVID-19,” Elliott said. “As a rural area, other disparities like access to preventive healthcare and subsequent chronic conditions are also likely to impact outcomes.”
While the county’s high death is the most serve and tragic result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the disease has also batterd the financial health of the region’s largest hospital.
In late June, Kaweah Health, Tulare County’s largest healthcare provider, projected an operating loss of $11.2 million for the new fiscal year ending in June 2023. Those new projected losses are in addition to the $17.9 million the hospital estimates it lost in the previous fiscal year that ended June 30.
“While we have cash reserves to cover a bad year or two, it reduces our ability to invest in facilities and equipment, as well as our ability to borrow money,” said Gary Herbst, Kaweah Health’s Chief Executive Officer. “These losses are not sustainable in the long term.”
Kaweah Health isn’t the only hospital experiencing financial strain. A recent study found that 51% of California hospitals are losing money.
“The pandemic has taken a devastating financial toll on the majority of hospitals in California,” said Carmela Coyle, President, and CEO of the California Hospital Association. “In communities throughout our state, many hospitals are struggling to provide services for all who need care. It is going to take years for hospitals to recover from these losses, and the truth is some hospitals may not survive.”
Since the pandemic started in March 2020, 112,118 Tulare County residents have been infected with COVID-19, and 1,500 people have died from complications of the virus.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
James Ward is a journalist for the USA TODAY Network and manages content at the Victorville Daily Press.
Have you lost a family member to COVID-19 complications? The Times-Delta/Advance-Register would like to tell your story. Email James Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org for a story we are producing about the tragic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in Tulare County.