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Mono County Has Most Per Capita COVID-19 Cases In Calif., But With Limited Testing

A street with old storefronts.
As of the evening of April 6, there were 19 known positive cases of COVID-19 in Mono County. One county resident has died from the disease.

The novel coronavirus has continued to spread throughout the country, and it's not sparing rural areas. That includes regions like the Eastern Sierra. Mono County in that region faces some unique challenges, like the high level of tourism that runs through the area year-round.

KUNR's Bree Zender spoke with the county's public health officer, Dr. Thomas Boo, to find out how the area is dealing with those issues.

Zender: What can you tell me about the spread in Mono County right now?

Boo: Well we don't know enough about how it spread into the community, but it's clearly spreading in the community. You probably know that, per capita, we have the highest number of cases in the state of California. The hospital is quiet right now and severe cases can be a pretty good indicator of how much you have in the community. But a week ago, I was extremely concerned about the fact that we had four severe cases over a short period of time and I really thought the surge was coming big and much faster than I had anticipated. But we've had a relatively quiet period for 10 days, or something like that now.

Zender: How much hospital space is there?

Boo: There are two small critical access hospitals in our immediate area. Mammoth Hospital has 17 beds, two ICU beds and four ventilators. And Northern Inyo Hospital in Bishop has, I believe, 25 licensed beds, four ICU beds and maybe five or six ventilators. The normal way that critical patients are handled in the Eastern Sierra is to stabilize and transfer [them] by air [on a] fixed-wing aircraft. Renown in Reno is our usual go-to transfer destination.

Zender: Is that what happened with those four severe patients?

Boo: Yeah, we had three people who had respiratory failure and required intubation, mechanical ventilation. Within a few days, we weren't able to transfer all those patients to Renown; there was a little bit of a weather delay with one of them. But you could just envision when the rest of California is really experiencing the COVID-19 surge and [Reno] can no longer take our patients, we would have already been maxed out. Well beyond our usual capacity and almost at our surge capacity.

Zender: Many areas are experiencing a testing shortage. Is that the deal with Mono County as well?

Boo: Testing has not been widely prevalent. I think less than a hundred tests have been done. Testing is starting to increase. We still don't have locally available testing, but the turnaround for the commercial labs, like LabCorp, is getting better. That's where most of the tests are going.

Zender: So the Eastern Sierra is a popular tourist destination for skiers and snowboarders. Now that it's getting closer to springtime, [it's a popular area for] rock climbers. Has the county been able to tamp down on those travelers?

Boo: Yes, it's been a concern and a focus of the unified COVID-19 response team. I was extremely gratified when Mammoth Mountain [and] Alterra closed all their resorts a few weeks ago because we were trying to decide what to do about that. We had a meeting scheduled with the CEO of Mammoth Mountain the morning after they announced the closure to just talk about what our options were there.

We're very grateful for the California stay-at-home order, that has markedly decreased travel and tourism. We have COVID-19 in Mono County now, but we don't want more importation of it. We just know that human movement [and] travel facilitates the spread of disease. We've also taken steps to really restrict short-term occupancy on hotels, motels, or Vrbos [vacation rentals by owner] to people who are consistent with the state's definition of essential sectors or central purposes.

Bree Zender is a former host and reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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