SAN DIEGO — San Diego County public health officials Wednesday reported 282 new COVID-19 cases and five additional deaths, while amending the public health order to increase protection for employees working during the pandemic.
The amendment to the county's public health order, which goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday will require all employers to inform employees of any COVID-19 outbreaks or cases at a place of business. Previously, the county recommended employers disclose outbreak information but did not require it.
"We are continually adjusting and making refinements," said San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher. "We believe most entities are acting responsibly, but this will ensure employers inform their employees."
The infections and fatalities reported Wednesday raised the cumulative caseload to 28,287 and the death toll to 552.
Of the 6,899 tests reported Wednesday, 4% returned positive, lower than the 14-day average of around 6%. Of the total positive cases, 2,459 -- or 8.7% -- required hospitalization and 632 -- or 2.2% -- were admitted to an intensive care unit.
According to Fletcher, the lower numbers could reflect the county's "realignment" to try to test more vulnerable populations who have been harder hit by the virus.
The head of the Chicano Federation of San Diego County was critical of the county's response, saying it had not taken actions to reflect its demographics in contact tracers -- an inaction which could be exacerbating cases and reporting in the county's Latino population.
"We were told repeatedly that the county was working diligently to hire people from the community to serve as contact tracers, and that they were being intentional about making sure contract tracers and investigators were representative of the community. They lied," Chicano Federation CEO Nancy Maldonado said in a prepared statement.
"The County of San Diego has failed Latinos at every step of this pandemic," she said. "Lives have been destroyed because of failed leadership. The response from the county has been irresponsible -- and San Diego County's Latino community is paying the price."
Speaking at the county's daily coronavirus briefing, Fletcher and county Supervisor Greg Cox said the county is rapidly attempting to recruit more Spanish-speaking contact tracers and investigators and increase testing in the South Bay, where communities are reporting the highest rates of COVID-19 in the county. The percentage of Latino contact tracers and investigators hired by the county is currently 25%.
Latinos make up 61% of those hospitalized in the county from the virus and 45% of the deaths. They comprise around 35% of the county's population.
"It's not lost on us that there are a large number of cases in the Latino community," Cox said.
Cox and Fletcher also said they would be bringing a plan for a safe reopening compliance team before the full Board of Supervisors. The team would supplement health order enforcement, including investigating egregious violations, outbreaks and conducting regular checks of the county's more than 7,500 food facilities.
"We recognize we have to do more," said Fletcher. "So that's what we are doing by increasing our staffing, to be able to go out to these locations, by refining the hotline we can get more accurate information in more real-time."
New enforcement could include a compliance hotline for tips, additional staff for investigations and outbreaks, and coordination with cities to send a team to conduct investigations.
One alleged violator now receiving a lot of attention is The Gym on Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach.
Last Thursday, the popular business was ordered by the county to shut down immediately for violating the public health order, which had closed all indoor operations of gyms, restaurants, salons and other businesses earlier this month.
On Tuesday, a coronavirus outbreak was pinpointed to The Gym, which means three or more people had been infected, although it is not clear when those cases occurred
"This was a perfect storm," said County Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten. "Last week when we were working with them to get them to close, we didn't know there was an outbreak there."
Meanwhile, a half-dozen new community setting outbreaks were reported Wednesday -- three in restaurant/bar settings, two in businesses and one in a healthcare facility. In the past seven days, 24 community outbreaks have been confirmed. A total of 73 outbreaks have been reported in July, more than double the number reported in June and almost equal to the number reported from March through June.
The number of community outbreaks is above the county's goal of fewer than seven in a seven-day span. A community setting outbreak is defined as three or more COVID-19 cases in a setting and in people of different households.
San Diego County's 14-day case rate stands at 139.4 per 100,000 population. To get taken off the state's monitoring list, the county would need to lower its 14-day case rate to below 100 cases per 100,000.
As of Wednesday, there were 502 people in the county hospitalized with COVID-19, and 149 of those patients are in intensive care units.
On Monday, the county reported 529 people were hospitalized for the virus-- a high for the month of July -- and health officials expressed concern about a Sunday evening outdoor church service at Cardiff State Beach that attracted scores of unmasked worshippers.
"It really was a massive group of people gathering together without social distancing and without wearing facial coverings," Wooten said. "We will continue to address this egregious violation as we have the others that have been brought to our attention."
Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the re-closure of churches in much of the state several weeks ago amid a spike in the number of coronavirus cases. Outdoor worship services are still permitted, though attendees are required to wear face coverings and stay six feet apart.
"If people continue to show or implement behavior in terms of gathering and not wearing face coverings and not social distancing, it is quite possible we will not get off the [watch] list," Wooten said.