Health

Fewer seeking COVID-19 tests in San Benito County

A drop in the positivity rate brings progress on the state’s ‘blueprint’ ranking.

Fewer San Benito County residents are testing for COVID-19 since Califonia moved to a color-based tier system on Aug. 28, according to county data. While testing peaked in July with 3,579 tests administered, the county is on pace to be below 2,000 tests this month, a first since June. 

While the OptumServe testing site at the Veterans Memorial Building in Hollister boosted testing when it opened to the public on May 10, San Benito County has seen a decrease in testing each month since August. In September, 2,457 tests were administered. 

Tracey Belton, director of the San Benito County Health and Human Services Agency, told BenitoLink the county does not know why residents are testing less.

“We speculate that testing challenges with long turnaround times in the summer and reduced appointment availability may have led to some not seeking testing now,” Belton said. “Other factors may be reduced concern and fatigue from precautions.”

According to local data, San Benito County is averaging 63.6 tests per day in October compared to 81.9 in September, 109 in August and 113.6 in July.

Though it was originally set to end on Aug. 30, the OptumServe site will be operational through November. It’s still being funded by the state at about $250,000 per month, according to Belton.  

The decline in testing has been accompanied by fewer positive tests results. With seven days left in October, the county has reported 51 positive tests. In July, August and September, the county reported 255, 475 and 389 positive tests, respectively. 

Belton said the county is not aware of any specific events that led to higher numbers in previous months. However, she said the most common setting for spreading the virus is when multiple households come together for an event. 

“Generally San Benito County numbers climbed with the rest of the state over the summer, but have taken longer to come back down,” she said.

Belton said the positivity rate is negatively affected by low testing rates, so it would be counterproductive to do so. She said residents with symptoms or high concern are the ones who tend to seek testing.

“In order to keep test positivity down, we need more people to test,” Belton said. 

While San Benito County advocates that residents receive regular testing, Belton said the county does not keep track of residents that get tested more than once.

The county does not publish information on what community groups are being tested. However, Latinos continue to be disproportionately affected by COVID-19, with 81.5% of positive tests in that population while comprising about 60% of the county population. Additionally, 64.3% of the 14 residents who have died from COVID-19 are Latinos (the county has not updated its mortality statistics for an additional death reported Oct. 22). 

Before the OptumServe site went into service, Belton said public health staff conducted outreach to the local Latino population to inform them of the need to test, wear masks, wash hands and socially distance. She said 70% of public health staff is bilingual and helped with Spanish testing registration support, as well as translation of all county messages such as press releases and educational materials. The public health department has also partnered with other entities such as the Community Action Board, migrant camps and the county agricultural commissioner for further outreach. 

As for community complaints alleging violations of state guidance, Belton said San Benito County receives numerous calls on the public health referral line. Complaints are sent to the local code enforcement jurisdictions and/or the state enforcement task forces agencies. Because the California Occupational Health and Safety Administration also investigates alleged violations, it used to notify the county regularly of investigations and results. However, with a high demand for its services since the pandemic, it has not been doing so. 

On Oct. 13, San Benito County moved to the red tier on the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy. Because the county is categorized as a small county—one with a population less than 106,000—California does not take into consideration its cases per 100,000.

The county has been meeting the weekly positivity rate threshold of less than 8% since the week of Sept. 22, by bouncing back and forth from 4.5% to 7.5%. As of Oct. 24, San Benito County’s positivity rate is 1.9% with a case rate per 100,000 of 3.1%. Data is updated every Tuesday by California. 

The county needs to stay in the red tier—the “substantial” risk level—for at least three weeks before it can progress to the orange tier—the “moderate” risk level. To move to the orange tier, the county must have a positivity rate of 4.9% or less for two consecutive weeks. And in order to not revert back to the purple tier—the “widespread” risk level—the county must not exceed 42 weekly cases. In its first week in the red tier, San Benito County averaged 2.1 cases per day. 

“It is entirely possible for us to learn to live with this virus, return to near normal and reopen our economy, but it requires everyone to do their part,” Belton told BenitoLink. 

 

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Noe Magaña

Noe Magaña is a BenitoLink reporter. He also experiments with videography and photography. A San Benito High School alumnus with a bachelor's in journalism from San Jose State and a Liberal Arts Associate's Degree from Gavilan College. Noe also attended San Jose City College and was the managing editor for the City College Times, the school's newspaper. He also was a reporter and later a copy editor for San Jose State's Spartan Daily.