Lawmaker, county health officer answer questions about pandemic

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People from San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties asked questions about the coronavirus during an emergency town hall meeting set up by Rep. Josh Harder on Monday afternoon.

With stay-at-home orders in effect across the state, residents of Harder’s 10th Congressional District, which covers portions of both counties, joined the town hall meeting by telephone, social media and radio to talk about topics from the economic impacts on small businesses to the availability of medical supplies.

“The best advice I’ve heard is to please stay home if you don’t have to go out,” Harder said. “Let me be clear: People are not being arrested for leaving their homes. There has been some confusion around the governor’s order. We’re not trying to criminalize people, but just because you can go out doesn’t mean you should.

“It’s going to make a huge impact if people take the advice of experts and take a couple of days and spend time at home with your families.”

On several callers’ minds was the strain on their businesses because of the stay-at-home orders for anyone not working in certain critical infrastructure sectors. Harder acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic was not only a public health emergency but also an economic crisis that would affect every family’s financial security.

He told the listeners about several measures that Congress had passed and President Donald Trump had signed into law, including paid sick leave and paid family leave. The measures will also give small businesses a 100% tax credit for the paid sick leave they provide to help families during the virus outbreak.

A caller asked what the government was doing to help small businesses and minority-owned business throughout San Joaquin County.

Harder said the economy would need to be restarted right away once the crisis was under control and stressed the availability of paid leave and disaster assistance loans through the Small Business Administration.

“Those loans are available for a lot of business that are worried about meeting payroll, what could happen over the next couple of weeks and months if this continues,” Harder said. “I would really recommend — we’re working with local chamber of commerces and the local SBAs, folks, to make sure you can apply for that.”

He said he hoped a stimulus package then under discussion could be signed into law this week to direct money toward small businesses. On Wednesday, the Senate passed the $2 trillion stimulus bill, and it is expected to go to the House of Representatives for a vote today.

“I know everyone’s struggling. We’re all in this together, and the best thing we can do is make sure that folks don’t get sick and, second, try and restart and unfreeze our economy as quickly as we can,” Harder said.

Some people asked whether retirees and seniors on fixed incomes would be included in government stimulus checks, which Harder said was still being discussed.

“This is quickly spiraling into an economic crisis,” he said. “I do think there needs to be direct assistance, money that goes to households that are being affected. The parameters of that — who exactly gets it, who qualifies, how much is the money — that’s still under negotiation right now.”

Other callers were unsure whether they could work, whether their jobs were among those deemed essential and whether independent contractors would qualify for financial help.

Dr. Maggie Park, county public health officer, asked that people honor the social distancing guidance issued by state health officials and the governor. She also noted that San Joaquin County Public Health Services and the Office of Emergency Services had put out a joint order Saturday that mirrored the governor’s executive order.

“We are doing our best to isolate those who are sick and to keep our health care workers as safe as possible because they are on the front lines,” Park said.

Harder tried to reassure the town hall participants in light of the stay-at-home orders.

“We will get through this,” he said. “If you have an older neighbor scared to go out to the store, offer to help. If you’re stuck at home and friend needs child care, offer to babysit for a couple of days. Deliver food for people in need. Each of us can find ways to help out our community.”

A caller from Modesto remarked that young people and groups who continued to gather in public were just worsening the situation of the virus spreading.

Park said people not adhering to guidelines was a huge concern.

“Even in our own communities, I’m seeing people congregating as if they’re on some sort of vacation,” Park said, adding that she had also heard about nonessential businesses that were still open and drawing crowds. “I wish they would take the message seriously, and we’re doing our best to get the messaging out there.”

She said that people could call the police or the sheriff’s department to report suspected violations of the stay-at-home orders. Tracy Police Department’s nonemergency line is 831-6550. The sheriff’s department’s main line is 468-4400.

“All of our local law enforcement has said that really they are going to try and follow the governor’s direction, which is to try and admonish people, give them warnings that this is not what is wanted, but they are trying to do this in an educational way before they punish,” Park said. “But if it gets to the point where it’s needed, your local law enforcement might need to approach it that way.”

A commenter who was following the town hall on social media wanted to know what was happening with medical supply shortages. Harder said a doctor told him he had been making improvised gloves out of garbage bags. He said he had asked the Trump administration to mobilize domestic manufacturing companies to work on the equipment needed by hospitals.

Park said area hospitals were running short of masks and gloves and were trying to collect supplies from dentists whose offices were closed during the outbreak.

A caller from Stanislaus County asked about how many people were being tested for COVID-19.

Park said the San Joaquin County lab was acting as a regional lab processing COVID-19 tests for eight counties and had done 300 tests as of last week. As of Monday, 48 of the 140 San Joaquin County tests had come back positive.

“We’re all moving at such a fast pace, the numbers are changing constantly,” she said, noting that the latest calculation showed about a 10% rate testing positive for the virus.

By Thursday afternoon, 83 residents of San Joaquin County had been confirmed positive for the COVID-19 virus. Three had died.

Harder said there were not enough test kits available.

“This is a real challenge. One of the things I learned in my business career is you can’t stop what you can’t find,” he said. “Until we have very detailed information on where this virus is, where it’s spreading, we’re not going to be in the best position to address it, so we need to make sure we’re making more tests and pushing them out to our counties and our hospitals to make sure everyone who needs a test gets one. We’re not there today. My hope is we will be there soon.”

Park said San Joaquin County had to prioritize who to test first because of the limited number of kits used in the lab to analyze samples and also, in some counties, a shortage of swabs and materials used to collect samples from patients.

“I really wish we could test everyone out there,” Park said. “Here in San Joaquin, if you are mildly ill and you think you might have COVID, we’re still asking you to stay home and try to ride it out. Unless you’re very ill, don’t go to the ED (emergency department) and seek testing.”

One caller wanted to know if there were enough hospital beds and ventilators in case area hospitals did see a surge of patients.

Park said she and her staff had been coordinating with the seven hospitals in the county.

“At this point, we do know that we have beds in storage and we have ventilators,” Park said. “We have impacted hospitals, but they’re not on the brink yet of having to pull any of the extra beds out, but they’re there.”

Harder said the local health care system was facing the same challenges seen across the country and across the world. Ventilators, masks and gloves are in short supply everywhere.

“We need to go into some of the factories, think about some of these car factories that aren’t producing cars, think about what we need to do be doing to retool them ASAP to make sure were producing the ventilators that are possible,” Harder said. “We have about 100,000 ventilators across the country and we need far, far more than that. We probably need about a billion pairs of gloves across our country over the next few weeks. That is a lot of production that is going to be necessary.”

Information about resources and financial assistance is available in the coronavirus resources section of Harder’s website.

Contact the Tracy Press at tpnews@tracypress.com or 835-3030.

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