Riverside County health officials reported 145 new cases of coronavirus and five more deaths Saturday, bringing the countywide totals to 2,602 cases and 74 deaths.
Of the 215 people hospitalized with COVID-19, 69 are in intensive care, five fewer than Friday, with 66 more people having recovered from the virus, according to the Riverside University Health System.
Though the infection rate has "plummeted precipitously" compared to earlier projections, the county's public health officer said it's too early to tell when the process of relaxing mitigation measures might begin.
"The majority of the population is doing what we asked,'' Dr. Cameron Kaiser said Friday. "People are taking appropriate precautions and following the orders that were issued. But we could still go back in the wrong direction. We need to know where our weak points are."
Two weeks ago, the county was indicating that statistical modeling showed the possibility of 65,000 infections and 1,000 deaths by the first week of May. Those predictions were altered Wednesday, with both the infection count and death rate predicted to be one-fifth of the original estimates.
The so-called "doubling rate," a key metric that RUHS officials have pointed to as an indication of unchecked viral spread, has also fallen. With 1,350 cases confirmed a week ago, the rate would have had to have jumped 100% by Wednesday — a five-day period — for a finding of possible surge activity. The figure had not been reached as of Saturday, eight days later.
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"Cases have plummeted precipitously," Kaiser said. "But it's too soon to lift our foot from the gas pedal. We're getting close. As the situation changes ... we will be looking at recommendations for many things. But we don't have enough understanding of our case load to put us past the (emergency) order."
The doctor acknowledged that the county could soon fall into the phase one "gating criteria" announced Thursday by President Donald Trump under the administration's "Opening Up America Again" plan. The criteria call for permitting groups of 10 or less to socialize with appropriate precautionary steps and providing guidelines for employers to bring workers back on the job in phases, with safeguards in place.
Kaiser said he's concerned about the lack of youth COVID-19
infections, fearing an unknown number of children may be dormant carriers of the virus, raising the potential of renewed spread.
"We don't know how many are out there,'' he said. ``We will need time to find out and right-size our response."
Board of Supervisors Chairman Manuel Perez celebrated word from the governor's office that an amended executive order now permits churches to host "drive-in worship services."
The county and state have been federally sued over the issue of barring religious services because of crowding. It was not immediately clear whether the revised order would prompt a withdrawal of the civil action.
Perez said the board on Tuesday will consider "other areas where there is flexibility and modification." He specifically noted that a potential rollback in Kaiser's order prohibiting recreational golf will be under review.
County Department of Public Health Director Kim Saruwatari said the broadening of testing for county residents — making tests available to anyone, not just those presenting virus symptoms — will aid in gaining a handle on when containment measures can be eased at the state and county levels.
About 32,800 people have been tested countywide at the four RUHS-run sites — in Indio, Lake Elsinore, Perris and Riverside. A new site will come online Wednesday in Blythe.
According to Saurwatari, the county has the capacity to test up to 10,000 people per week.
"This is a vicious enemy that has taken our neighbors," she said. "We're in this together, and we will succeed together."
Assistant County Treasurer-Tax Collector Matt Jennings reminded property taxpayers that penalty cancellation requests are still being accepted for those impacted physically and financially by the virus and cannot afford to meet the current installment on their tax obligations. More information is available on the county treasurer's website.
Perez also reminded residents to complete their 2020 Census questionnaires, noting that under federally sanctioned revisions arising from the coronavirus emergency, people now have until Oct. 31 to complete and return their surveys.
"We need to count every individual possible within the county," the chairman said. "It will allow us to receive the funding we deserve."
He directed residents to visit the census website for more details.