Mono Plunges into Dark Winter As Cases Explode, Holiday Hopes Dashed

Wendilyn Grasseschi
Times Reporter

December 2020 is going to be remembered for a long time in Mono County – and not in a good way.

With most of a very hard year finally receding and hopes for a decent holiday season to help make up for huge revenue losses incurred due to nine months of pandemic-related restrictions, the gods of fate were not done with tourism-dependent Mono County yet.

On Dec. 7, the county was plunged into what amounted to another shutdown; one similar to the spring ‘Stay at Home’ order but likely to cause even more damage.

This time, the shutdown of almost all short-term rentals along with indoor and outdoor dining, as well as gyms, hair stylists and other businesses hit just as the holiday season started.

Although Mammoth Mountain was allowed to stay open under state guidelines for outdoor recreation (and under county orders restricting indoor capacity and dining), the elimination of short-term rental options essentially turned Mammoth into a ghost town as of last Monday evening.

The shutdown came after the state, dealing with record-setting Covid cases that are rising nearly exponentially every week, established ICU capacity thresholds for five regions of the state last week. The state then assigned both Mono and Inyo counties to the Southern California Region. Should a region exceed the capacity of 15 percent left, into a Stay at Home order it goes.

Why were these two rural counties lumped in with the Southern California Region?

According to the state, Mono and Inyo counties are connected both epidemiologically (disease transmission-wise) as well as through a network of public health supply and planning networks and disaster recovery networks to the Southern California region. With the total ICU capacity of the region below 10 percent remaining on Dec. 7, the state that day ordered a new, three-week-minimum, Stay at Home order for the entire, 11-county region, hoping to slow the exponential growth of the disease and the corresponding influx of patients into the region’s ICU beds.

Although often, or when convenient, Mono County can claim it has no connections to Southern California’s troubles, that was not true for this situation, according to local Mono County health officials.
Although the county’s ICU capacity at Mammoth Hospital was still stable and capable or taking in patients at press time, Mono County’s Covid cases were exploding this week, just like they have been now for several weeks, growing by as much as 100 people in a week and pushing positivity rates between eight and 29 percent.

Local cases include sick people, including those who have needed to be hospitalized, as well as people who had lesser symptoms, and those with no symptoms, just as has been true for the entire progress of the disease nationally.

As of the morning of Dec. 13, Mono County had 440 positive cases, with almost 100 of those added since last Sunday, Dec. 6, with 111 tests pending. The county has more than doubled its testing capacity since last week, but even so, the lines of people waiting for a test at many of the free, county test lines at the Mammoth Lakes Community Center this past week were hours long.

Add to that the fact that the above numbers do not yet include many of what is expected to be an influx of Thanksgiving travel-related cases, due to the two-week lag time between exposure and positive case identification, health officials said. Those number should begin to show up earnest in test results this coming week, health officials said.

They also said the reasons for the explosion in cases, as previously reported, are myriad: coming this time, unlike in the spring and much of the summer, almost equally from people getting infected in family or small gathering situations; from people traveling to other places and coming back to the county; from closely packed housing and employee housing infections; from workplace infections – in other words, coming from everywhere.

“It is coming from just about everywhere equally,” said Bryan Wheeler, Mono County Public Health Director. He added that the now-widespread nature of the disease outside of Mono County and in the entire country and world is another factor; there is simply so much more virus circulating in the state and country than there was this spring and summer, it is increasingly hard to avoid being around people who have been infected, whether they know it or not.

The fact that Mammoth Hospital can still take patients as of this week, Dec. 13 (as we update this story) should not give locals much comfort, however. That is because, at 8,000 feet elevation, local health officials said again this week the first thing they want to do with a Covid-19 patient that is struggling is to get them to a lower elevation, higher-level care center.

“A hospital at 8,000 feet is not our first choice for any respiratory disease, let alone Covid,” said Wheeler. The problem is, normally that would be either Southern California, or, more often, Northern Nevada and the Reno/Carson Valley area. But as noted above, Southern California was almost full at press time this week and Northern Nevada had set up a Covid clinic in a parking garage to take on the huge influx of patients coming through its medical system.

According to one local (who did not wish to be identified) who had to go to Renown for non-Covid-19 purposes this week, “I had to wait for four days just to be seen due to the fact Renown has so many Covid cases,” she said. (In fact, Nevada was listed as one of the ten top places in the world for Covid-19 growth rates as of Dec. 12, according to CNN news.)

And no, the increase in local cases is not due just to an increase in testing being done, local health officials said.

“Yes, there has been an increase in testing, but even so, as of December, the positive rates are overwhelming the negative rates,” said Dr. Tom Boo, the county’s public health officer at a meeting before the Mono County Board of Supervisors on Dec. 8. “This is the trend we are seeing here in Mono County... the positive rate has just gotten out of hand.

“This is very much a crisis situation, even if our hospital is ok now,” he said. “But our local and state health situation is dire - cases have been increasing at an exponential rate in Mono County and ICUs in California and Nevada are struggling under the strain. Yet hospitals have just begun to experience the impact of all the infections that occurred around Thanksgiving! Mono County had nearly 100 new cases reported last week, doubling every week or two, and I'm dreading the secondary wave of people with severe cases who are likely to come to the hospital in coming weeks.

“The lodging issue is a major one for the Town, and we in Unified Command fully understand the hardships – it’s terrible that many are out of work,” he said. “But visitation, travel, is super-problematic in this pandemic. I am not impressed by the decisions of officials in other jurisdictions who misinterpret state public health orders, opting to jeopardize the lives of some of their people.

“The idea behind the regional stay at home order is that people must really stay at home except for essential trips to the store, medical issues, etc.,” he said. “It's ok to get out to go for walks, runs, bike rides, but stay close to home. By and large people should stay in their own jurisdiction (town, county, etc.). It's not ok to travel from So Cal to the Eastside for your ‘mental health.’

“If we all do this, the Regional Stay At Home will be effective in quickly getting infection rates down, as we saw in the spring, saving lives, preventing disability, and allowing more business and social activity with modifications,” Boo said. “But if many are trying to find a loophole, or otherwise ignoring the orders, it will not be effective, and this terrible period we're in will be much prolonged.

“I am gratified that Town and county are marshalling resources to mitigate some of the economic harms of the pandemic, and I desperately hope that our federal elected representatives can get it together and pass meaningful national relief bills,” he said.

“Please just stay home,” he said.

• The single best site for Mono County Covid info is here:

This site has information on test results, cases, case trends, information on all of the county’s free and clinic-based testing options; information on how to call the free Nurse 211 Hotline; on where to find resources for businesses and individuals; how to identify symptoms; where to listen to all the previous and upcoming Covid-19 Community Forums and the Covid mental health forums; past and current Public Health orders and links – and so much more. It should be bookmarked on your computer.