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In Mariposa County, An ‘Explosive’ Jump In COVID-19 Cases Since July

Mariposa County Public Health Facebook page
County Health Officer Dr. Eric Sergienko, lower left, and other officials from the county health department and Mariposa County Unified School District address the public during a Facebook Live event on August 10.

In the last month, Mariposa County has surged from one of the state’s lowest rates of new COVID-19 cases to one of its highest. As a result, county supervisors recently approved mask and vaccine mandates for county employees.

As of July 15, Mariposa County had reported 472 total cases of COVID-19 among its 17,000 residents. By August 15, that total had risen to 662 – a jump of more than 40 percent in just one month. “You’re seeing just an explosive increase in the number of COVID patients, and then seeing a similar rise in the number of patients being hospitalized,” said County Health Officer Dr. Eric Sergienko.


Six county residents are currently being treated in hospitals, up from lows of one and even zero COVID-positive patients during most of the spring and early summer. This week, the county also reported its first COVID-related death since February, bringing the total now to eight fatalities since the pandemic began.


Sergienko attributes the recent surge to the loosening of mask mandates and other COVID restrictions, as well as a rise in tourism to Yosemite National Park and the mountains. “It really does tie into the retirement of the Blueprint for a Safer Economy and people saying ‘ok, now I can travel,’” he said, “and then at that same time we started seeing Delta cases.”


Compared to other surges, Sergienko says, health officials are seeing the disease spread much more readily through patients’ families. Also notable is the patients’ younger ages: He knows of a 26-year-old on the last-resort blood-oxygenating therapy known as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, and a 45-year-old in need of a lung transplant.


“We’re seeing younger people, the 20- to 50-year-olds that didn’t get vaccinated who are getting hospitalized, and some fairly significant disease in this group,” said Sergienko. “Because they’re younger, because they’re healthier, when they do get hospitalized, they don’t succumb from their disease like older people do, but they end up consuming resources for a longer period of time.”


A little over half of the county’s eligible population has received at least one vaccine dose. The county has reported 37 cases among fully vaccinated residents, representing around 10 percent of new cases during that period, but Sergienko says none of those breakthrough cases have required hospitalization.


Because John C. Fremont Healthcare District, Mariposa County’s only hospital, is equipped with only 34 beds and has no negative-airflow rooms to treat patients with infectious diseases, all COVID-positive county residents in this current surge have been transferred to hospitals in neighboring counties. But with beds filling up across the Valley and regional ICU capacity at only 15 percent, Sergienko worries ambulances may be monopolized by longer transfers, and hospitals won’t have the nurses they need to staff their full capacities of beds.


“If it were just people getting mild symptoms and pressing on, it probably wouldn’t be that big a deal, but we are seeing significant hospitalizations, we’re seeing the system get strained,” he said. “And if we go beyond that, there really aren’t the resources that we had back in winter for surge staff.”


During their public meeting on August 10, county supervisors approved of a mask mandate and vaccine mandate for county employees. Workers must now either show proof of vaccination or submit to weekly COVID tests, and all must wear masks while indoors regardless of vaccination status.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.