Emergency rooms such as this one at El Centro Regional Medical Center could get busier due to the COVID-19 flu virus, now declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization. | Corissa Ibarra photo
IMPERIAL VALLEY — Even as the World Health Organization on March 11 officially declared the COVID-19 flu outbreak a global pandemic, its impact was being felt in Imperial County despite no confirmed local cases.
Among the most notable
developments were a handful of suspected cases, the cancellation of a major
event and the declaration of a county emergency. Local schools remained open,
though the situation is being closely monitored, the county’s top school
“School closures due to the COVID-19
pandemic will be evaluated by each district as they carefully consider the
guidance released and regularly updated by the California Department of
Education, the California Department of Public Health, and other agencies,”
county school Superintendent J. Todd Finnell stated in a March 11 email.
“There is increasing urgency in containing the virus,
and all reasonable steps will be considered. Schools are already evaluating travel,
mass gatherings and events, and other activities that may need to be modified
or eliminated,” he added. “The situation is evolving day-by-day, and our
community should feel very confident that our schools are actively engaged with
local, state, and federal agencies in a coordinated response to protect our
The top candidate for a
confirmed local case involves a woman in her 70s who traveled to Florida
recently and is being treated as the first possible case of COVID-19 in Imperial
County. She is in isolation at El Centro Regional Medical Center, according to
health officials, awaiting results of additional analysis.
A positive test has not
been confirmed and no official cases of COVID-19 have been found in Imperial
County as of midday March 11.
The woman, who was
brought to the El Centro Regional emergency room on March 8 and held in
isolation since, is being treated as the first case of the virus after initial
test results came back inconclusive March 10.
“There is an older female
at our hospital with possible COVID. I say possible because we do not have our
final tests back. We have preliminary results that make us worried,” physician
Christian Tomaszewski said during a hospital press conference late on March 10.
The initial samples taken
from the woman were tested in a San Diego laboratory but were inconclusive. She
has been retested and her new specimens sent to San Diego and to the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Tomaszewski said.
The emergency physician
said she is being treated as if she has the virus.
“This day was going to
come. We all knew this. You can run but cannot hide in El Centro. COVID will
come here like it has in almost every major city in the United States and in
the world,” Tomaszewski said.
“The good news is, even
if this case is not COVID, it means that we are well-prepared,” he added.
ECRMC Chief Executive
Officer Adolphe Edward held a similar press conference March 8 to get in front
of rumors and social media chatter regarding the virus. He announced the woman
had arrived at the ER complaining of side pain and meeting the criteria for
COVID testing and pre-cautions.
The woman had been put in
isolation and a limited number of staff were treating her, Edward said. Those
in charge of her care had been properly equipped, including being issued CDC-recommended
masks and other protective gear, he added.
Two additional cases had
come into the ER on March 10 that were also tested for COVID-19, Tomaszewski said.
Testing is taking 24 to 48 hours to complete, Edward said at the March 10 press
At least one COVID-19
test has come back negative, physician and county Health Officer Stephen Munday
said March 10 during a report to the county Board of Supervisors.
More than one test has
come back negative, Munday said. However, in a follow-up interview he refused
to discuss specific numbers when asked to clarify how many people had been
tested in Imperial County.
ECRMC officials said they
had been in contact with Munday and the county Public Health Department staff
prior to the start of the press conference, which was held at 6 p.m. on March
It was unconfirmed that
at least one of the negative tests came from Pioneers Memorial Hospital in
Brawley. Numerous messages to Pioneers’ public information staff went
unreturned as of late morning on March 11.
ECRMC staff and El Centro
city officials said they were at the March 10 press conference to assure the
public the situation was under control and that people need not panic or
overreact concerning COVID-19.
“This is a very serious
matter … It was just a matter of time before we have a coronavirus case in
Imperial Valley, in El Centro,” El Centro Mayor Efrain Silva said, but he added
Local Risk ‘Low’
Meanwhile, county Public Health
officials continued to say the risk to Imperial County residents was low during
a report to the county board.
Although Public Health
has activated an operations center staffed with about 20 people to field
concerns and provide information about the virus, the agency is “at a low level of response
now,” public health Director Janet Angulo told the board.
Public Health has been in
close contact with both hospitals, labs and healthcare providers, law
enforcement and educational agencies and many others, including counterparts in
Mexico, Angulo said.
The county’s Public Health
website has become a “hub for information,” she said, full of guidance
documents and up-to-date information from the CDC and other agencies.
Munday told the board
several tests are pending and that “one came back negative” on March 9.
While Munday said he is
being made aware of the results of testing as they come into public labs and
through healthcare providers, he clarified March 10 he is now requiring private
laboratories in the county report to him as well if they come across positive test
During his presentation
to the board, Munday spoke about the “infectiousness” and “severity” of
COVID-19 in comparison to the typical flu, which itself has been strong this
The “infectiousness” of
COVID-19, which like the flu is spread through “droplets transmission” such as
coughing, sneezing and even talking, is much higher than the typical flu
strains, he said. Presently, a COVID patient is infecting an average of two to
four other people, Munday said.
On the other hand, the
“severity,” or mortality, of the standard flu appears to be higher, he added.
“Early data from China
showed between a 2.5 to 4 percent mortality rate,” Munday said, adding as cases
increase “the estimate of fatality is dropping as we collect more data.”
As of March 11, when the
World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic there were
118,000 cases and more than 4,000 deaths worldwide, according to multiple media
reports. U.S. cases numbered about 1,000 with deaths at 31, reports stated.
By comparison, about
20,000 people have died in the U.S. from influenza this season, including five
people in Imperial County, according to the most recent CDC data.
Meanwhile, as major
public events are being cancelled or rescheduled throughout the nation due to
COVID, Imperial County is not immune. On March 10, the Naval Air Facility El
Centro announced cancellation of the March 13 Food and Entertainment Fest at
the base due to concerns over the virus. However, the March 14 Blue Angles air
show was still on as of March 11.
“This morning, at the
request of Commander Navy Region Southwest, we were asked to limit the scope of
our open base events this weekend. To that end, we have decided to cancel the
Food and Entertainment Fest and press forward with the air show (March 14),”
NAF El Centro public affairs officer Kristopher Haugh reported in a news release.
In related news, the
county board on March 10 ratified previous March 5 declarations of a local
health emergency over the virus by Munday and a proclamation declaring a state
of emergency by county Executive Officer Tony Rouhotas Jr.