On May 27, I asked Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson to ask Solano Public Health Officer Dr. Bela Matyas a number of questions about recent increases in the number of our youth who are showing up positive for COVID-19. The Mayor passed my questions on to Dr. Matyas that day, and on May 31, he replied with answers to all eight questions – see below.
Solano County is reporting an upward trend in confirmed cases among young persons 18 and under, adding (as of today) 26 more positive cases over the last 20 days, having reported only 6 over the 5 weeks prior. (Latest update…)
MY QUESTIONS & DR. MATYAS’ ANSWERS…
How serious are these youth cases?
The youth cases are mostly asymptomatic, although a few have been mildly symptomatic.
How old – teens or young children?
While we have had a few young children, most of the youth are older teenagers.
Surely the increase can be partially explained away as a result of more testing, but that doesn’t mean the numbers are any less serious. Right?
The increased numbers are apparently the result of increased testing of asymptomatic household contacts of cases and testing of asymptomatic persons at the recently opened Optum sites in Vallejo and Vacaville; we are likely uncovering a phenomenon that has been present all along. As to seriousness, the percentage of positive youths we are seeing seems to match statewide and national numbers. These individuals, while not themselves experiencing serious illness, are nonetheless able to spread the virus to others.
Is the County conducting contact tracing for these youth?
Yes, just as for all positive cases.
Does the County have sufficient staffing for contact tracing?
So far, yes.
What can the County and cities do to intensify communication with our young people and parents?
Presumably, utilizing social media and school-based communication systems.
SO NOW WHAT?
I sincerely hope that parents and youth reading this will take note, and that the County and its cities and school districts will intensify communication about the serious reality of COVID-19 transmission among youth, and from youth to their elders.
Those of you who are familiar with the Benicia Independent know what it is and what it isn’t.
I’m a one-person journalist. For over 13 years here on the BenIndy, I have published news and opinion from a Benicia California perspective.
I am NOT an investigative reporter. Mostly I repost interesting and important stories written by others. I am an environmental advocate and an old time liberal on issues of race and gender, peace, justice, poverty and more. I tend to focus on a single issue for weeks or months – or even years – at a time. I’ve reported at length on hazardous oil trains, gun violence and the need for gun control legislation, local and national electoral politics, and so on.
Recently I’ve taken on the COVID-19 pandemic here in Solano County. And that’s where I want to take you today.
Every day now since the second week of March, I’ve posted Solano County’s numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths. Most days I spend hours combing through local, regional and national news about the virus and posting it here on the BenIndy.
Your response has been amazing. At the height of our successful effort to stop our local refinery from importing dirty and dangerous crude oil by rail, almost 1,800 of you paid a visit to my pages one day – a record for the BenIndy that lasted for about 5 years. Since I started reporting on COVID-19, more than 3,000 of you have checked my pages on 9 occasions, and on April 1 you set a new all-time record of 8,105 views. A huge and unexpected leap!
Now what does all that have to do with the title of this piece, “Headlines in search of stories… coronavirus in Benicia and Solano County”?
Here’s the deal: every morning I get up and flip back and forth through about 7 local and national news channels on the tv. I spend about an hour like that while I drink too much coffee and lean my sore back on an electric heating pad. And I take notes – ideas about important stories that I really SHOULD cover on the Benicia Independent.
Now if I were an editor in chief with staff, I’d assign reporters to make phone calls and conduct interviews and come back with stories, important stories that really should be written.
Alas, that’s not me, and that’s not the BenIndy…
So, with all that lengthy introduction, here is my list of headlines in search of stories. Please. Someone out there – please get on the phone or otherwise track down the information that the public needs to know, for instance…
There’s a NATIONAL crisis in nursing homes – how many are sick in Solano County’s congregant facilities? Where ARE our nursing homes and retirement facilities? (None here in Benicia – so where do Benicians go when we get old and in need of care? And how are those facilities doing???)
Testing in Solano County long term care facilities – numbers, results?
Solano has recorded 3 coronavirus deaths, 2 among those aged over 65. Did they die in a hospital? And before that, were they living at home or in a long term care facility?
Solano County is testing fewer than 50 per day – why?!!!
Today’s news: Contra Costa, Napa, Sonoma and San Francisco are expanding testing – why not expanded drive-through testing in multiple cities in Solano?
Unemployment numbers in Solano and Benicia? Local numbers on those unemployed? And local numbers of unemployed with no health insurance?
Bolinas and SF Mission District are testing EVERYONE – why not here in Benicia? (Yes I know Bolinas is tiny and wealthy, but can’t we think big? Who are a few philanthropists and billionaires with ties to Benicia who could fund such a project?)
Reopening moves are beginning to appear in Bay Area counties. Who is planning the reopening of Solano County, and what are the plans? And will they be open to public comment?
Coronavirus and guns – with schools closed, March was the first month with NO SCHOOL SHOOTINGS in the US since 2002. Rather a bittersweet statistic – do we celebrate, or weep? (This despite an uptick in gun purchases. And what’s that all about?!)
Surely there is a dire fiscal impact of the coronavirus lockdown on Benicia and Solano governmental cash flow and operations. Details needed, and possible solutions.
Etc., etc… You get the idea. But who can take it on? The huge problem with all this is the horrific times our local news media, journalists and reporters were suffering even before the pandemic. Too many cutbacks, too few local journalists, too few local newspapers, and now too many absences, too much loss of revenue during these historic pandemic times. (So yes, there’s another headline in search of a story.)
“Two hundred sixty-seven billion tons of ice is really hard to put into context, but you could start by imagining a herd of elephants charging into the ocean from Greenland,” Osterberg said. “If you imagine that, we’re talking about 2,000 elephants charging into the ocean every second. That’s how much mass is going from Greenland into the ocean.” — Erich Osterberg, Dartmouth College climatologist
Dead seals, marked with bald patches, washing onto shores or floating in rivers. A 900-mile-long bloom of algae stretching off the coast of Greenland, potentially suffocating wildlife. A giant, underground storehouse of carbon trapped in permafrost is leaking millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, heralding a feedback loop that will accelerate climate change in unpredictable ways.
These are all bleak highlights from the 2019 Arctic Report Card, unveiled on Tuesday at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting. Published annually by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the 14th iteration of this peer-reviewed report examines the status of the planet’s northern expanse and changes due to global warming, with potential consequences reaching around the globe.
In addition to scientific essays, this year’s report card for the first time delivers firsthand accounts from indigenous communities confronting the Arctic’s dramatic, climate-caused transformation. More than 70 such communities depend on Arctic ecosystems, which are warming twice as fast as any other location on the planet.
“In the northern Bering Sea, sea ice used to be present with us for eight months a year,” write members of the Chevak, Golovin, Nome, Savoonga, St. Paul Island, Teller, Unalakleet and Wales communities. “Today, we may only see three or four months with ice.”
The 2019 report documented sea ice at its second-lowest level ever recorded during a summer period, out of the last 41 years of satellite observations. This disappearing sea ice not only serves as a natural bridge for Native people hunting for food, but is central to creating the food in the first place. Its loss appears to be tied to dramatic shifts in marine life, as the sea ice helps create cold patches of water where Arctic fish thrive.
Sea ice cover in the Bering Sea on March 20, 2012 (left), and February 24, 2019 (right). Extremely low winter ice extents also occurred in the Bering Sea in 2018 and 2019. NOAA Climate.gov image based on NASA satellite images from Worldview
Without those cooler pools, economically important marine species from the south — walleye pollock and Pacific cod, for example — are migrating northward, complicating business for the billion-dollar U.S. fisheries operating near Alaska in the Bering Sea.
“Major changes are occurring. For example, we closed the cod fishery early — first time in a long time — because of the decline in stocks there,” Retired Navy Rear Adm. Timothy Gallaudet, deputy NOAA administrator, said Tuesday at a press conference in San Francisco. “Our fishery science really is important to ensure we better manage what’s occurring.”
The Bering Sea and the Barents Sea appear to be the major centers of tumult. Fish leaving southern waters are challenging underwater species — like Arctic cod — for the northernmost territory, and may also consume the marine food typically eaten by seabirds, leaving other species hungry.
Over the last year, the Bering Sea has witnessed mass die-offs of short-tailed shearwaters near Bristol Bay, while the same has happened for ivory gulls in Canada, Greenland, Svalbard and Russia. Populations of Canadian ivory gulls have declined 70 percent since the 1980s, according to the report card.
“We as indigenous people have always adapted to our environment — whether something was imposed upon us or not,” Mellisa Johnson, executive director of the Bering Sea Elders, said Tuesday at a press conference in San Francisco. “The Mother Earth is doing what she needs to do because we are not taking care of our land and sea as given. We’re going to continue to adapt and move forward with the change.”
A fledgling short-tailed shearwater (Puffinus tenuirostris) on Heron Island, Australia. Shearwaters migrate north of the Bering Strait in the northern summer. Photo by Auscape/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Ivory gull in Svalbard. Photo by Mats Brynolf via Getty Images
Those die-offs may also be due to the rise of algal blooms across the Arctic waterways. Red tides and other harmful algal blooms — typically a phenomena of warmer, southerly waters — are becoming more common in the north, as also detailed in last year’s report.
“Not only are we seeing these blooms in this particular region happening earlier, but they’re also substantially larger than what you would expect even later on in the year,” Karen Frey, a geographer and biogeochemist at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and co-author of the 2019 Arctic Report Card, told the PBS NewsHour.
Frey described the sea ice as a dark cap on the ocean, reflecting sunlight back into the atmosphere, keeping the algae contained and in check. When sea ice declines, large algal blooms are expected to increase.
Marine algae are essentially waterbound plants — they need sunlight and nutrients to multiply. During the winter, they’re mostly inactive because the Arctic is dark, at times for 24 hours a day. This inactivity allows nutrient to build up during the winter months. Then, as sea ice disappears in spring and summer months, sunlight can penetrate into the water, allowing algae to flourish to levels never before seen.
Without that cap, Arctic seas experiencing some of the highest algal production rates in the world, Frey said. She pointed to a 930-mile-long algal bloom — longer than California — recorded off the eastern coast of Greenland in May 2019. Based on observations from NASA’s Aqua satellite, the biomass in this bloom was 18 times higher than any event on record and occurred one month earlier than the typical peak for algal blooms. Earlier blooms suggest larger sea-choking events lasting for longer portions of the year.
Total mass change (in gigatonnes or billions of metric tons) of the Greenland ice sheet between April 2002 and April 2019. Infographic by Megan McGrew
Another issue highlighted in the report is the age of the sea ice, which is becoming younger and younger as the years pass. In 1985, old ice — chunks that have been frozen continuously for more than four years — accounted for 33 percent of sea ice in the Arctic ocean.
“Now, it’s just 1 percent. There’s just this little sliver of this old ice remaining,” said Erich Osterberg, a climatologist at Dartmouth College. That decline is noteworthy because older sea ice is much thicker and harder to melt. “Right now, the vast majority of the sea ice is first-year ice. It’s new ice, about 70 percent of it.”
As sea ice vanishes, it allows ocean water to warm, which in turn increases air temperatures and imperils other forms of frozen water.
Greenland, where Osterberg conducts much of his research, is home to the second-largest ice sheet on the planet — and it is disappearing. The Arctic Report Card shows that roughly 95 percent of the Greenland ice sheet melted at some point in 2019, and the magnitude of ice loss rivaled 2012 as the worst year on record. From 2002 to 2019, Greenland’s ice sheet lost 267 billion metric tons per year, on average.
“Two hundred sixty-seven billion tons of ice is really hard to put into context, but you could start by imagining a herd of elephants charging into the ocean from Greenland,” Osterberg said. “If you imagine that, we’re talking about 2,000 elephants charging into the ocean every second. That’s how much mass is going from Greenland into the ocean.”
These melts appear to be happening faster along the edges of the ice sheet, which speak to other disparities occurring across the Arctic region. Some parts of the Arctic are simply warming faster and faring worse than others from year to year. For example, snow cover over the North American Arctic was significantly lower than that of Eurasian portions, which remained normal last year.
A frozen beach on the Bering Sea coast is seen near the last stretch mushers must pass before the finish line of the Iditarod dog sled race in Nome, Alaska, March 11, 2014. The Bering Sea is experiencing some of the most dramatic changes in the Arctic. Photo by REUTERS/Nathaniel Wilder
The way that permafrost — perennially frozen ground — appears to be thawing may spell ill tidings for atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases. Permafrost holds the corpses of plants, animals and microbes that died in Arctic and boreal habitats over hundreds of thousands of years.
That’s a huge cache of carbon, namely along the southern borders of the Arctic and ranging from 1,460 to 1,600 billion metric tons, currently locked in the ground. If fully released, this permafrost carbon may accelerate climate change faster than currently predicted. And this year’s Arctic Report card spotlights how those gases are already leaking — to the tune of about half a billion metric tons (or 1.1 trillion pounds)–into the atmosphere.
“We’re not really accounting for this extra carbon coming out of the Arctic,” said Ted Schuur, an ecosystem scientist at Northern Arizona University who wrote the report card’s essay on permafrost. For comparison, humans burn enough fossil fuels each year to release about 10 billion metric tons of carbon.
While Arctic communities may be suffering the most now, elsewhere is starting to feel the effects, too — as the warming air disrupts weather patterns, throws off the polar jet stream and causes summer heat waves and winter cold snaps across much of North America and Europe.
“Things that we see happen in the Arctic are kind of foreshadowing what we expect elsewhere,” Schuur said.
By — Nsikan Akpan, digital science producer for PBS NewsHour and co-creator of the award-winning, NewsHour digital series ScienceScope.
By way of explanation – and with apologies to those of you following my blog – a family emergency has claimed my full time attention since Saturday, September 21. I am chief cook, bottle-washer, nurse, homemaker and gopher (among other things) for the next 6 weeks or so. I’ll post here occasionally, but nothing like the usual. Sad, given the urgent nature of global news, the impeachment, and other regional and local news. Alas, I’ll be back. Stay tuned.