San Diego County sounds alarm that COVID-19 case rate is headed toward purple tier

Workers in blue gowns and masks prepare to give coronavirus swab tests to two women in a college gymnasium
Nursing student Nicole Orth, right, monitors student Ellie Turk, who is given a coronavirus test Thursday in the gym of Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego.
(Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego County officials came to the lectern during a surprise news conference Friday with a warning: The region’s COVID-19 case rate is headed in the wrong direction, and residents need to be especially vigilant if they want to stay out of the state’s most-restrictive purple tier.

The county’s case rate is a reflection of how widespread the coronavirus is across San Diego. Over the last week, officials have watched as that seven-day metric has creeped up from an average of 6.8 daily cases per 100,000 residents on Sunday to 7.8 daily cases on Friday.

That’s bad news, because anything higher than 7 qualifies the region for the purple tier — indicating widespread risk of transmission of the virus, according to California’s labeling system — but only if scores cross the threshold for two consecutive weeks. If that happened, as it almost has a handful of times, many businesses that just started welcoming customers indoors would be ordered to move operations outside again.


“Today, we are here to sound the alarm that our actions matter, and we all must work together to keep San Diego County out of the purple tier,” said Wilma Wooten, the county’s public health officer.

Although the upward trend isn’t looking good, county officials were hopeful Friday that the region’s testing totals would be high enough to earn a downward adjustment that would help the region cling to the red tier when the state runs its official case rate calculations Tuesday.

According to the data available Friday, there were 1,617 confirmed coronavirus cases recorded from Oct. 4-10, the period the state will use to calculate the region’s case rate in its upcoming report. With a population of 3.3 million, that currently earns the county a case rate of 6.85 daily cases per 100,000 residents.

But that’s probably less than the number that will appear in Tuesday’s report, because over the next two days, the county probably will identify additional cases that will fall in that window. The state also adjusts raw case rate scores based on whether health providers in each county cumulatively performed more or less testing during the seven-day window than the median rate statewide.

Although it’s possible the final calculation will keep the region in the red tier, the situation “is just too close for comfort,” Wooten said.

In addition to the oft-repeated advice of washing hands, distancing socially and wearing masks to help keep case rate totals low, people were asked to avoid crowded places and skip house and dinner parties. Employers were encouraged to allow workers to telecommute.

And everyone was reminded to stay home while sick.

Wooten acknowledged that these measures won’t affect the state’s next two case rate assessments. That’s because the dates the state will assess on Tuesday have already come and gone. And most of the dates that will be assessed the following Tuesday have also passed.

It is “too late, as I stated, to have an impact on data that will be reported for this week, but, going forward, the actions and changes that we are asking you to take will help improve and have an impact on whether we go to the purple tier or not going forward,” Wooten said.

Los Angeles County health officials reported 10 new deaths related to the novel coronavirus and 953 new positive cases.

The region’s climbing case rate isn’t the only metric suggesting the coronavirus is spreading widely.

Over the last week, the county has investigated 40 community-setting outbreaks, a total that included one additional outbreak reported Friday. The daily case count also trended a bit higher with a total of 311 — about 3% of the 6,724 tests logged Thursday. The region’s rolling 14-day average percentage of positives remains at 3%.

Three additional COVID-related deaths brought the regional total to 850. The victims were identified as a 61-year-old man, an 84-year-old man and a 93-year-old woman, all with other underlying medical conditions.

Colleges across the county have also been providing updates about the case totals.

On Friday, Point Loma Nazarene University reported that 32 students and one employee had tested positive for the coronavirus. Twenty-three of those cases are still active, including six who live off-campus. There are 69 individuals in quarantine, and the college is waiting on the results of 100 additional tests. At UC San Diego, at least 109 students and 45 campus employees have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Far outpacing those totals, San Diego State has seen COVID-19 cases among 1,184 students, 14 faculty and staff members and 13 campus visitors.

Winkley writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.