California – In Crescent City, the morgue is overcrowded and needs a refrigerator truck to hold corpses while the small hospital is so full that it is waiting to transport COVID-19 patients out of the remote town of Del Norte County. The majority of workers are with coronavirus infections that businesses are closed.
Deaths in Del Norte County have more than doubled due to COVID-19 in recent weeks, from 10 on August 15 to 22 on Friday. Four people die in one day, according to officials.
In rural California, where vaccination rates are low, death is sweeping a year and a half through the pandemic, the fight for COVID-19 is more intense than before.
Del Norte County health officials believe there is an undercount of the number of people who have died from COVID-19 and some never made it to the hospital. The coroner is investigating.
“This was our biggest fear,” state senator Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg), who represents seven counties stretching from Marin to Del Norte, told The Times.
“We saw significant increases in urban areas in this state early on. Now rural California is the epicenter of this pandemic.”
Health and hospital officials have long feared the increased rate of deaths in sprawling, sparsely populated Northern California as there is already a shortage of doctors, and emergencies from trauma or illness could mean an hour-long drive to the nearest medical facility.
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Northern California and COVID-19
In August, nine counties in Northern California saw more hospitalized patients with COVID-19 than at any other point in the pandemic: Amador, Del Norte, Humboldt, Lake, Mendocino, Placer, Plumas, Shasta, and Tuolumne.
“We’ve spent too much time fighting each other and not fighting the virus,” McGuire said. “Unfortunately, politics has prevailed. We need public health to come first.”
Perhaps nowhere in California is the disaster more acute than in Del Norte County in the remote northwest corner, where the redwood forest meets the sea.
Cumulative coronavirus cases have more than doubled in the past three months, from 1,380 confirmed on May 10 to 2,805 on Friday. At least 70 cases were confirmed on Thursday alone.
The county of 27,800 people has one hospital, the 49-bed Sutter Coast Hospital in Crescent City. The next closest in California is a 90-minute drive south in Humboldt County – on a stretch of Highway 101 called Last Chance Grade that is crumbling into the sea.
Earlier this month, more than 100 doctors in Del Norte and neighboring Humboldt County signed a letter to ask residents to be vaccinated.
“As your doctors and as the people you’ve worked with, played, laughed, and cried with, we have to admit we’re tired,” it said. “Of course we will continue to work. But we are tired. We are tired of the suffering, pain, and death that can be avoided by getting vaccinated.”
In Crescent City, the vast majority of calls firefighters receive involve people suspected of having COVID-19, city manager Eric Wier said, and resources are under pressure, putting the community at risk in the light of other possible emergencies, he added.
His family ran Wier’s Mortuary Chapel for decades before selling it recently. The new owner told him this week that the morgue is beyond capacity.
“These aren’t numbers,” said Wier. “These are families. These are our neighbors. These are our friends. That’s what we’re talking about here.”