Desert Sun: As COVID-19 cases rise in Coachella Valley, highest rates are in eastern communities
By: Nicole Hayden, Rebecca Plevin, Melissa Daniels and Gabrielle Canon, Palm Springs Desert Sun
Published: 11:24 a.m. PT April 23, 2020
As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the Coachella Valley, communities in the eastern part of the region now have the highest rates of infection. As of Thursday, Thermal, Mecca and Coachella, respectively, lead with the highest rates, according to Riverside County health officials.
The higher rates don’t necessarily mean the highest number of cases. They do, however, mean — when compared to a particular community’s population size — the total amount of cases represents an undue burden.
An unincorporated community just south of Coachella, Thermal has a rate that is nearly five times higher than the overall rate among Coachella Valley cities and unincorporated communities. The overall rate is 1.4 cases per 1,000 residents.
Mecca, an unincorporated community just north of the Salton Sea, has double that rate. The city of Coachella is just under double the overall rate.
Lesly Figueroa, a policy advocate based in the east valley with Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability, attributed the high rate of cases in the eastern part of the region to several factors, including disparities in educational attainment and access to technology. She also pointed to the language divide — some residents only speak Spanish, while others speak the Mexican indigenous language Purepecha.
The high rate of cases in the region, she said, could be explained in part by, “the simple fact that folks don’t have access to the information — and the information that is being put out there is mostly in English and it’s mostly on Facebook,” she said.
Additionally, Figueroa said, many east valley residents are considered essential workers and continue to work outside of their homes during the pandemic. She recalled speaking with one agricultural employee who, she said, was required to bring her own protective gear to work.
The Purépecha community is an indigenous Mexican group from Michoacán. Today, many live in Oasis Mobile Home Park in Thermal, Calif. Palm Springs Desert Sun
As essential workers, Figueroa said, “folks are more likely to be out and more likely to be at risk.”
Finally, she said, the public health response to the pandemic should have prioritized disadvantaged communities, including those in the east valley where many people live in areas that lack street lights, paved roads, clean water and access to basic health services.
“These are just systems and legacies of neglect that exist within the eastern Coachella Valley,” she said.
Together, the three communities — Thermal, Mecca and Coachella — have 131 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Thursday, up from 122 the day prior.
At least 20 of those cases are due to an outbreak at a Coachella date packinghouse, where the state’s Division of Occupational Health and Safety is investigating a coronavirus-related death.
As of Thursday, Riverside County officials had confirmed 20 cases of COVID-19, including the fatality, at SunDate, which packs Medjool and Deglet Noor dates that are sold at stores nationwide. The county is working with the facility operators to test more employees, according to county spokesperson Jose Arballo Jr.
Cal/OSHA launched a fatality inspection last Friday after it was notified of the employee’s April 15 death from complications related to a COVID-19 infection, according to department spokesperson Frank Polizzi.
The investigation will “determine the work-related nature of the incident and identify any violations of workplace safety and health regulations,” he said.
The agency has six months to complete the inspection and issue any citations to the company, he said. Cal/OSHA had not issued any fines to SunDate as of Wednesday, he said.
SunDate officials have not yet responded to a request for comment.
The cluster of coronavirus cases at SunDate comes amid mounting concern about the health and safety of people who have sustained the food supply chain throughout the pandemic, including agricultural workers, meat processing plate employees and grocery workers.
Farm labor advocates have expressed particular concern that people who work in packinghouses and rely on labor vans for transportation could be at elevated risk for contracting the virus, since it is challenging to practice social distancing in enclosed and often crowded areas.
Albert Keck, chairman of the California Date Commission, said Wednesday he had not heard of any other outbreaks associated with the Coachella Valley’s agricultural industry.
The Coachella Valley produces the vast majority of the nation’s date supply.
Riverside County health officials on Thursday reported 134 new coronavirus cases and one new virus-related death.
The county’s number of cases has doubled since 11 days prior. The total number now stands at 3,218, with 100 deaths related to the virus. Additionally, officials said 904 people have recovered and 128 inmates in county jails have tested positive.
Riverside County has confirmed about 131 cases per 100,000 people, which is higher than the overall state rate at 89, but is likely because the county is also testing at a higher rate that the state.
Riverside County is outpacing California in testing rate with 1,439 tests administered per 100,000 residents, as compared to 780 per 100,000 people statewide. In total, the county has administered 35,265 tests.
County officials also reported that 229 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, 84 of which are in intensive care units. Three more people are in ICU beds than on Wednesday.
The number of hospitalized patients continues to be manageable and hasn’t demanded more from the county’s 17 hospitals than they can provide, health officials said.
The county did not update demographic breakdowns for fatalities, which as of Friday, showed 39% of deaths were white individuals, while 28% were Latinx individuals. In Riverside County, 34% of residents are white and 50% are Latinx, according to census estimates.
Newsom: ‘This disease continues to spread’
California saw its deadliest day since the coronavirus crisis began, with 115 lives lost over the last 24 hours, Gov. Gavin Newsom said at his daily briefing Thursday.
He used the devastating figure to highlight the need for continued diligence in social distancing, especially with a week of warm weather beckoning residents to recreate outside.
The spike in the death toll represents an 8.5% jump from the previous day, bringing the number of fatalities associated with COVID-19 to more than 1,400.
As of Wednesday evening, the California Public Health Department reported nearly 35,400 confirmed cases in the state. Newsom said that number has also continued to grow — the latest count is 37,369.
“We still have more positives in this state every day,” he said. “This disease continues to spread and we need to spread the word — we are all in this together.”
However, Newsom also said that for the first time since officials started tracking cases — and relying on them as the key metrics to assess whether the curve is flattening — both new hospitalizations and the number of intensive care unit patients dropped, along with the number of people being tracked for potential exposure.
Newsom has often signaled that these numbers are among the most important when it comes to determining California’s ability to respond to the crisis. Confirmed COVID-19 cases are expected to rise along with the expansion in testing, but the need for critical care is stabilizing and — so far — has not exceeded the state’s hospital capacity.
These totals, along with a list of six key indicators he shared last week, will determine when the state will begin easing social distancing orders and returning to some degree of normalcy.
The metrics alone, Newsom said, will determine the timeline.
“It won’t be a letter I receive or a tweet,” he said, noting the frustration some have expressed and the protests that are popping up across California and around the U.S. “When the indicators go green, I am going to go live.”
Newsom promised he would make the announcements “in real-time” once the data signals that it’s safe to begin easing restrictions.
“There is no such thing as reopening back to normal — it is normal with caveats,” he said. “I assure you, I am looking forward to starting up this engine of our economy.”
Augustine Casino issues layoffs, furloughs
Augustine Casino has laid off about 70 employees and temporarily furloughed around 210 more, as the Coachella casino waits out the shutdown during the coronavirus pandemic.
General manager Jef Bauer said the layoffs were primarily in the table games and buffet departments, two areas of casino operation that aren’t likely to go back to operating the way they did before the pandemic.
“This is unprecedented, as everybody knows, and it’s been extremely difficult,” Bauer said.
He said the Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians has been generous with employees, who were paid for six weeks since the casino closed on March 15. But given that the virus is continuing to spread and the statewide shelter-in-place order remains, Bauer said the casino had to make the difficult decision to cut payroll as it loses millions of dollars.
“It’s become clear now, six weeks isn’t even close to what it’s going to be,” he said. “We all had our fingers crossed, we hoped to be back at work right now.”
The employees on furlough are not being paid, but will receive health care paid in full by the tribe and are encouraged to apply for government benefits, Bauer said.
The casino also has donated around 3,500 pounds of food to employees and Indio-based homeless resources provider Martha’s Village & Kitchen, Bauer said.
Around 20 people are still working for the casino, Bauer said, but that may change as the situation unfolds. The financial hit has been “devastating” for the operation, he said.
“Even if we got up and running on June 1, we will not recover from this any time this year,” he said. “We will still be underwater until at least 2021.”
New debt-relief programs to help with financial hardship from COVID-19
Acknowledging the financial hardship and anxiety caused by the coronavirus crisis — and the need for the continued social distancing orders that have sent California into a recession — Newsom announced new programs aimed to relieve pressure on debt-ridden residents.
First, a new 90-day student loan forbearance will become available to the 1.1 million Californians with academic debts, without any risk of impact to credit scores or increases in fees or fines.
Along with that program, Newsom signed an executive order Thursday ensuring that federal stimulus funds received through the CARES Act cannot be garnished by debt collectors. The order applies retroactively, so money already taken by collectors will have to be given back.
“No debt collector can take those direct payments in the state of California any longer,” Newsom said.
The move, he added, advances “a principle that is appropriate under the economic circumstance.” But there is a caveat: “If you owe child care, spousal support, this does not apply for you,” he said.
Economic hardship in the state has surged since Newsom issued shelter-in-place orders. As of March 15, 3.9 million individuals have applied for unemployment insurance, Newsom said.
California has doled out roughly $4 billion, but many residents are still waiting for their checks. More than 530,000 people filed new unemployment claims in the week ending on April 18 alone, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
To keep up with the increases in need, the Employment Development Department has redeployed 1,300 staffers to process unemployment insurance claims and opened a new call center with hours expanded from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., every day of the week.
Newsom said officials are in the process of adding hundreds more staff to help the department.
“Everybody is coming together not just to increase points of access,” he said, “but the quality of access.”
Local counties: Cases so far
San Bernardino County: The number of new COVID-19 positive tests in San Bernardino County rose by 30 on Thursday — the lowest single-day increase of the week, health officials reported.
In total, 1,608 San Bernardino County residents have tested positive and 77 have died from COVID-19. Most of the cases have been in larger cities in the southwest part of the county, including Fontana (186) and the city of San Bernardino (176).
The curve flattening comes a day after county officials announced they would begin a gradual reopening of shuttered public spaces. They announced San Bernardino County would lift restrictions on outdoor recreation over the weekend. Visitors will be able to return to parks, tennis courts and golf courses, but are still expected to practice social distancing and adhere to the county face-covering requirements in place, Fourth District Supervisor Curt Hagman, who represents Ontario and Chino, said.
“We want to make sure everyone is still practicing their physical distancing and we encourage them to check in with the place they’d like to go visit to make sure it’s open this weekend,” Hagman, who currently serves as Board of Supervisors Chairman, said in a Wednesday press conference. “If there is abuse of this new allowance, the board will have no choice but to re-close our outdoor destinations.”
The move followed Riverside County’s decision to reopen golf courses on Tuesday amid appeals from golfers. Although non-contact sports will be allowed, the county will continue to prohibit activities like camping and barbecues, the San Bernardino Sun reported.
In the county’s high desert region, there are four cases in Joshua Tree, three in Landers, five in Morongo Valley and 14 in Yucca Valley.
The county reported 127 of its confirmed cases as occurring in an “undetermined” location.
San Bernardino County has tested a smaller proportion of its residents than California as a whole. The county has tested 14,885 patients, or about 685 per every 100,000 county residents, while California has tested 1,218 per 100,000 people.
Census estimates show 71.1% of San Bernardino County residents are under the age of 50, but less than half of the individuals who’ve tested positive (48.6%) have been under the age of 50. Meanwhile, 51.2% of the county’s positive tests have been in individuals over the age of 50, even though they make up 28.9% of county residents.
The distribution is almost equal among genders: 802 of the confirmed cases have been in men, while 798 have been in women.
Imperial County: Imperial County health officials reported Thursday that eight people have died due to complications from the coronavirus, increasing by two since the day prior.
The county also reported Thursday that 232 people have tested positive for the virus and 61 have recovered. That is 18 more people falling ill while no additional people have recovered since the day before.
The county of just over 181,000 residents tested 1,378 people by Thursday. The county has increased their testing capabilities and tested about 100 tests in the past day.
Coachella Valley: Cases so far
County officials reported on Thursday 11 new cases and no new deaths in the Coachella Valley’s nine cities, which now have 549 positive cases and 23 virus-related deaths in total.
- Cathedral City: 69 cases and 1 death
- Coachella: 100 cases and 2 deaths
- Desert Hot Springs: 28 cases and 0 deaths
- Indian Wells: 9 cases and 0 deaths
- Indio: 111 cases and 3 deaths
- La Quinta: 49 cases and 0 deaths
- Palm Desert: 73 cases and 5 deaths
- Palm Springs: 87 cases and 9 deaths
- Rancho Mirage: 22 cases and 3 deaths
- Unincorporated communities: Bermuda Dunes: 4 cases and 0 deaths; Desert Edge: 3 cases and 0 deaths; Desert Palms: 5 cases and 0 deaths; Garnet: 8 cases and 0 deaths; Mecca: 22 cases and 0 deaths; Oasis: 5 cases and 1 death; Sky Valley: 3 cases and 0 deaths; Thermal: 8 cases and 0 deaths; Thousand Palms: 4 cases and 0 deaths; Vista Santa Rosa: 1 case and 0 deaths
- California: 37,369 positive cases and 1,469 deaths, the California Department of Public Health reported Thursday.