MARTINEZ (CBS SF) — Health Director Dr. Chris Farnitano is well aware of the growing frustrations among Contra Costa County residents with what feels like a glacial pace in reopening area businesses, recreation, schools and society in general amid the coronavirus pandemic.

That restlessness was clear from reading the running public commentary on Farnitano’s live Contra Costa Health Services Facebook discussion Wednesday afternoon.

But during the 40-minute discussion and question-answer session, Farnitano was steadfast in saying he and his fellow Bay Area health officers will let data and science drive their decisions as to when the next phase of “phased reopening” is appropriate.

“We’re looking at the data on a daily basis,” Farnitano said about the Bay Area counties’ health officers. “We’re going to let the data drive our changes.”

The data on new Bay Area COVID-19 cases, he said, has been good, with a “flattened curve” of new cases and area hospitals not nearly
overwhelmed with coronavirus patients. He credits the Bay Area’s early move to issue shelter-in-place orders with helping make that happen.

He also said he’s concerned about how fast some places in California are moving toward reopening. COVID-19 cases statewide are on an
upward swing, Farnitano said, and the death rate is flat. He reiterated that he and his health official colleagues will continue with a careful, cautious approach to reopening.

“It’s going to be a lot harder to pull back than it is to move forward,” Farnitano said.

The overall state health order, Farnitano said, as of Wednesday, still doesn’t allow public gatherings (except in very specialized settings, like summer camps and houses of worship, both with restrictions), and he said no county health order can be more permissive than the state order.

That said, Farnitano reinforced the reality that the Bay Area has been, and will continue to be, slower to emerge from shelter-in-place shutdowns. That’s largely a function of more densely populated counties, which are at higher risk for coronavirus spread.

As for when Contra Costa and other counties will announce the next step, moving farther into “Phase II” and its changes like indoor sit-down eating and shopping (with masks and other limitations), Farnitano on Wednesday offered no specific time frames.

The coronavirus, he said, isn’t on any particular schedule.

The most recent update to the counties’ health order was May 18, to allow some industries to resume operations and retail businesses to offer storefront pick-up.

Helping things move more quickly, he said, will be more testing.

The testing rate in Contra Costa County has doubled in the past few weeks to about 800 people per day, but he wants to see that go to 2,200 a day as soon as possible. He encouraged any Contra Costa resident to be tested; the more tested, the easier it will be to do “targeted” shelter-in-place of positive,asymptomatic people who cause most of the spread and, in turn, allow others to more readily resume “normal” life.

The effects of the sustained shelter-in-place on the collective mental health, Farnitano said, need to be charted. Doctors at John Muir
Medical Center in Walnut Creek said last week that hospital has experienced more suicide deaths than coronavirus deaths since the shelter-in-place order was enacted, but Farnitano said he has not seen hard data showing any increase in suicides or what prompted them.

But he said he understands what would drive such numbers.

“We know it’s been hard on a lot of people,” with job losses, businesses closing and people missing social connections, Farnitano said. “But we’ve seen it around the world, how small (infection) numbers can turn into big numbers.”

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