South County urges Covid-19 safety during holidays

Gilroy, Morgan Hill officials host town hall on coronavirus surge

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City officials in Morgan Hill and Gilroy are asking residents to resist the urge to travel and attend large gatherings for the upcoming winter holidays, as South County remains a growing hotspot for the Covid-19 pandemic that is surging once again across the nation.

The two cities joined forces at a Nov. 12 online town hall to inform residents about the rising Covid-19 case rate, encourage more testing and reiterate local and state guidelines and recommendations for reducing the virus’ spread.

“We have started to become a little complacent” about Covid-19, Gilroy City Administrator Jimmy Forbis said. “The numbers show that is the opposite of what we should be doing.”

From Oct. 4-24, Morgan Hill’s Covid-19 case rate was 4.1 per 100,000 residents, according to information presented at the town hall. Gilroy’s case rate during the same period was 9 cases, which would place the city into the state’s “purple” or most restrictive tier in the state’s blueprint for reopening. 

A case rate between 4 and 7 would place a county or region into the state’s “substantial” tier. 

Testing case positivity rates in South County are lower than any other region of the county except east San Jose, according to public health officials.

“South County and the Gilroy area are significant hotspots,” City of Morgan Hill spokeswoman Maureen Tobin said.

Tobin noted that on Nov. 8, the county recorded 358 Covid-19 cases—more than any day since July.

Testing is one of the most effective tools to reduce the spread, the officials said. Because a Covid-19 carrier may not exhibit symptoms, they could spread the virus without knowing it. With a positive test result, a patient will be better informed about whether to quarantine or what kind of safety measures to take. 

“I encourage everyone to get tested, and tell their friends to get tested,” Morgan Hill City Manager Christina Turner said.

Some residents—particularly those performing “essential” work—should get tested once or twice a month, depending on their level of interaction with the public, added Brian Darrow of the county executive’s office.

There are more than 50 Covid-19 testing sites in Santa Clara County, including at least four in Morgan Hill and Gilroy. To see a list of testing locations and make an appointment, visit sccfreetest.org.

The town hall was a foreshadowing of a new county order announced Nov. 13 by Public Health Officer Sara Cody, who said the county will be moving back into the state’s “red tier” on Nov. 17. That means indoor dining and other activities that opened back up in October are again prohibited at least until the Covid-19 case rates stabilize.

Because of the staggering surge of new cases, the local officials advised South County residents to celebrate the holidays safely.

“The best recommendation is to celebrate without traveling or gathering,” Tobin said. “Non-essential travel, including holiday travel, is not recommended at this time.”

If travel outside the Bay Area is a must, it is further recommended that those travelers quarantine themselves for 14 days upon their return home, Tobin said.

County and state health officials have advised that even gathering with extended family members—with multiple households represented in one place—is risky. If families and friends must gather in person, they are advised to “keep it small, short, stable and outdoors,” Tobin said.

Other ways to celebrate the holidays safely include: decorating your home and yard; share a virtual, online meal with family and friends; host online parties or contests; prepare traditional meals to deliver to family and neighbors; attend holiday drive-in movies; visit holiday themed art installations; and participate in drive-by or parade events.

Also participating in the Nov. 12 town hall were Morgan Hill City Attorney Don Larkin, Gilroy spokeswoman Rachelle Bedell and Gilroy Fire Chief Jim Wyatt.

The officials also reminded residents of the importance of established practices that can help reduce the spread of Covid-19: wearing masks in public, washing hands frequently, staying home when possible, minimizing contact with people outside the household, maintaining social distance and moving gatherings outdoors.

In response to a question about the effectiveness of masks, Darrow said masks should always be combined with these other safety measures.

“No single intervention is perfect, but when you layer it with others you can reduce your risk,” Darrow said.

On a hopeful note, Wyatt observed that in Gilroy, it seems the severity of Covid-19 cases has decreased.

However, he added that he has noticed more cases among younger age groups. “A lot of new cases in Gilroy are among younger people,” Wyatt said. “I routinely drive around and see groups of young folks who are not wearing their masks. It has to be consistent.”

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