SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California’s coronavirus infection rate has reached its lowest level since the early days of the pandemic but San Diego County, the state’s second-largest, is seeing an uptick that could shut down some recently reopened businesses.
California’s seven-day positivity rate — comparing infections to the overall number of virus tests conducted — was 3.3% on Tuesday, according to state data. The average number of daily cases has been falling for weeks and the most recent seven-day figure was 3,157, a 27% drop from the previous week.
But virus cases in San Diego County have trended higher recently and now are above statewide averages and health officials are trying to figure out why. San Diego’s numbers were low enough last month that when the state unveiled its new, four-tiered ranking system it was the only very large county below the most restrictive level, which allows for classroom instruction and limited reopenings of movie theaters, gyms and other businesses.
The latest data for the county of 3.3 million people shows an adjusted virus case rate of 8.1 per 100,000 people — above the level needed to stay in that tier and on par with Los Angeles County, which for much of the pandemic had struggled to contain the outbreak. Counties revert to a more restrictive tier if cases are above required thresholds for two straight weeks.
“Our commitment is to work with San Diego and any other county that is starting to see some increase in their numbers,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s health and human services secretary, said during a weekly briefing. “We don’t yet have enough evidence that it can be attributed to the businesses that have already begun to increase their operations in San Diego, although we’re closely looking at that.”
Ghaly said another factor might be a series of virus cases reported at San Diego State University. The school has reported nearly 650 cases among students since August and has suspended in-person instruction.
Rebecca Fielding-Miller, professor of public health at University of California, San Diego, said cases rose largely among people in their teens and 20s and coincided with the resumption of some college classes. Young adults are more likely to socialize and also work in restaurant jobs where they run greater risk of being exposed to the virus, she said, while adding that more robust contact tracing would be needed to track the level of cases.
“I think the county making the decision to reopen based on what the tiers allowed us to do was regrettable, especially because we did it right before a three-day weekend,” she said. “In the absence of an infrastructure to contain an outbreak, we’re really just sitting in the middle of a bunch of tinder during a wildfire.”
The issue was up for discussion among San Diego County supervisors on Tuesday. Supervisor Jim Desmond complained that the state’s rules have changed too often and businesses are suffering. He asked fellow supervisors to support a proposal for the county to stop enforcing the state’s rules. It was rejected.
“There does not need to be a choice between public safety and a strong economy. We can have both,” he tweeted.
Supervisor Nathan Fletcher opposed the proposal, and noted the uptick in cases.
“We need to slow the spread, protect our vulnerable residents and ensure a smooth economic recovery,” he said.
When California unveiled an updated reopening framework in August, 38 of 58 counties were reported to have “widespread” virus transmission, which means they have a case rate greater than 7 newly confirmed daily cases per 100,000 residents and/or an infection rate about 8%. They may only offer distance learning in schools and most businesses must limit indoor operations.
On Tuesday, there were 30 counties still in the most restrictive tier, with Inyo, Marin and Tehama the most recent to move out. Ghaly said he expected more counties could be eligible to make the switch next week.
The state’s color-coded system allows counties to reopen more businesses and activities as they meet thresholds for infection rates and cases. The system is updated on Tuesdays.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
San Francisco has had among the lowest rates of any large county for months but chose to keep many restrictions in place. On Tuesday, Mayor London Breed urged residents to continue wearing masks as the city allowed nail and hair salons, spas, gyms and other businesses to reopen indoors. She said she doesn’t want to reverse course and close businesses again.
“I know that people are pretty much tired of what we’re living in, as it relates to COVID. I’m tired of talking about it. I’m tired of living in it. I’m tired of doing all the things that you’re tired of doing because I want to enjoy my life, I want to live, I want to go back to normal,” she said. “But unfortunately, this is a deadly virus.”
Associated Press writer Amy Taxin reported from Orange County. Associated Press writer Janie Har in San Francisco contributed to this report.