Progress and pain at pandemic's one-year mark

03/17/2021

It’s been a year almost to the day since Marin fell under the first stay-at-home order in the nation, and relief is on the horizon: A third of the county’s population has received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, the state is reopening the economy, and federal stimulus money is on the way. 

“It is a sign of hope that each day, Marin residents are being vaccinated at 100 times the rate that they are being infected with Covid-19,” Marin Public Health Officer Matt Willis said. “Our infection rates continue to decline, our vaccination rates continue to increase, and those are, in fact, the ingredients of moving out of the pandemic experience. We aren’t there yet—it’s going to be at least two months of staying the course—but this is clear hope for the future.”

The majority of residents are now eligible to receive a vaccine. On Monday, the county moved on from focusing on educators, farmers and food service workers, expanding criteria to include those age 16 and older with disabilities and chronic illnesses, those working for public transit agencies, disaster service workers and those living in congregate facilities. Nearly 160,000 residents are eligible for a vaccine now, half of whom have already received one dose.

Though equitable vaccine distribution is a state and local priority, disparities persist. In the group of Marin residents age 65 and over, the county is tracking inoculation by race. Sixty-seven percent of whites in that demographic have received one dose, compared with 66 percent of Latinos, 62 percent of Asians and 54 percent of Blacks. Latinos, who make up 16 percent of Marin’s population, account for over half of the county’s total Covid-19 cases. 

Marin continues to focus on increasing vaccine accessibility for the census tracts that rank low on the state’s healthy places index, which monitors 25 community characteristics related to income, health and education. Vaccine distribution in West Marin is taking place at the Coastal Health Alliance and the West Marin Medical Center; the county and the private company Curative are also sending out mobile teams to reach residents, including this week in Tomales and Bolinas, which both rank lower in the index. 

West Marin’s vaccination rate is 38 percent, compared to 33 percent in the county as a whole.

California last week loosened criteria for reopening the economy after hitting a statewide benchmark of allocating 2 million vaccine doses in lower-income areas. Within the state’s four-tier system, Marin now anticipates dropping into the second-least restrictive tier, assigned the color orange, by March 24 as long as transmission continues to fall. That tier requires no more than four new cases per 100,000 residents a day.

The orange tier would allow retail to operate at full capacity, for restaurants to host indoor diners at half-capacity, and for bars to operate outdoors, among other changes. Dr. Willis projects moving into the least-restrictive, yellow tier by mid-April. There will be a final green tier, though the state is still developing the details.

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Act passed into law last week, holds promise. The allocation for local assistance will provide Marin County and its cities and towns with around $86 million, with a first installment in May. Other significant portions of the package will arrive in the form of rental assistance and homelessness prevention, stimulus payments for individuals, and relief for businesses—including through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, economic injury disaster loans, and the Paycheck Protection Program. 

The county will also receive a chunk of funding to expand and improve its public health department. “This pandemic has revealed the need for more robust public health infrastructure across the board. Our health care system is focused on taking care of people after they are ill, but we need to do more on the prevention side,” Dr. Willis said. “These funds will get us through this pandemic and sustain us so we can respond more quickly and prevent the next one.”

The anniversary of the shelter-in-place order brought up mixed emotions for coastal residents.

For Point Reyes Station restaurateur Sheryl Cahill, the past year has been the most challenging in her career, forcing her to rely on federal loans to keep her two businesses from sinking. In the March 18, 2020 edition of the Light, she likened each day to a week. On Monday, she said, “That didn’t end: It’s been a year like that, a year of a relentless freefall.”

But just recently, Ms. Cahill has started to feel more hopeful as her entire staff approached the date of their second vaccine, indoor dining ramped up and federal money was approved. “The way that the anniversary of the shutdown has coincided with the announcement that the Restaurant Revitalization Fund is really going to happen has just hit me emotionally pretty hard,” she said. “There was this moment where I broke down, realizing that I think we are really going to make it.”

Lourdes Romo, the executive director of Papermill Creek Preschool, was diagnosed with Covid-19 on July 4. Although she had a mild case and her heath recovered soon after, the emotional effects of the experience are lasting. “It was devastating,” she said. “I felt so alienated, so alone, so ashamed. It was something we had no control over—we did all that we could to take care of ourselves—but when I was done with quarantine and given the okay to start to integrate back into society with all the precautions, I found people would literally walk away.”

The social-emotional fallout from the pandemic is something she thinks about every day, Ms. Romo said, especially for her students. “The most healing part for me looking ahead will be to gather again with my family and with my friends. I have certainly realized how much I value them.”