California is slowly opening up in response to lowered COVID-19 case rates, but here in the Central Valley, we have reason to be cautious.
Fresno, Tulare, Madera, Merced, and Kings counties continue to have high COVID-19 community levels, according to new metrics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
You can see in our map below that much of the Valley remains in the 'red' zone.
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Previously, the CDC's 'high,' 'substantial,' 'moderate' and 'low' transmission categories were based on case rates and positivity percentages. Now, the new metrics also take into consideration hospitalization numbers when measuring the impact of COVID-19 and masking requirements for communities.
Fresno County has the highest rate of COVID inpatient bed utilization (percentage of staffed inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients) in all of California.
Nearly 21% of hospital beds in Fresno, Madera, and Tulare counties are occupied by COVID-19 patients - the highest rate among all the counties in the state. In fourth place is Tulare County, with 20.3%.
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The Valley's COVID hospitalization rates and COVID case rates are also among the highest in California.
These new metrics come as most of the country is gearing up for what it hopes is a post-pandemic world.
Earlier this week, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that masks will no longer be required in schools starting mid-March, and dropped the masking requirement for unvaccinated people in most indoor settings - even though he said it was still 'highly recommended'.
Similar policies were adopted by Oregon and Washington, and other states on both the East and West Coast.
For more guidance on what precautions you should take at each level, refer to the CDC.
About the new CDC metrics
Counties with more than 200 new cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days will be categorized in the "high" level if its new weekly COVID-19 hospital admissions per 100,000 people is higher than 10, or if the percentage of staffed inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients over the last seven days is more than 10%. Otherwise, the county will be categorized in the "medium" level. Counties with a weekly case rate of more than 200 cannot move into the "low" category.
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For counties with fewer than 200 new cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days, weekly hospitalization admission rates of more than 20 and a percentage of staffed beds occupied by COVID patients of more than 15% will be at the "high" level.
For the "medium" level, hospitalization admission rates must be between 10 and 20, and bed utilization between 10% and 15%. The "low" level is for counties with less than 10 weekly new COVID-19 admissions per 100,000 people, and less than 10% of beds occupied by COVID-19 patients.
Indoor masking is recommended for counties at a "high" level.