Early Moves by Bay Area Officials Saved Lives, Led Nation in Coronavirus Combat

Bold measures implemented by California leaders, led by members of the Association of Bay Area Health Officers, were central in helping the Golden State avoid the kind of devastation the coronavirus wrought in New York and parts of Europe, experts say.

Early Moves by Bay Area Officials Saved Lives, Led Nation in Coronavirus Combat

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS/AP) — On the morning of March 15, as Italy became the epicenter of the global coronavirus pandemic, a half dozen high-ranking California health officials held an emergency conference call to discuss efforts to contain the spread of the virus in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The tight-knit group of Bay Area doctors organized the call to discuss a consistent policy on public gatherings for the region’s 7 million people, which then had fewer than 280 cases and just three deaths. Soon, though, the conversation focused on the potentially catastrophic emergency on their hands and how stay-at-home orders could slow the advance of the virus.

An empty Interstate 280 in San Francisco on March 26, 2020. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Many factors have fueled the speed of the disease spread throughout the world. But that three-hour call and the bold decisions to come out of it were central to helping California avoid the kind of devastation the virus wrought in parts of Europe and New York City, experts say.

“It was obviously spreading like wildfire under our noses and literally every minute we did not take aggressive action was going to mean more and more death,” said Dr. Scott Morrow, health director for San Mateo County, just south of San Francisco and home to Facebook.

The doctors who met that day are members of the Association of Bay Area Health Officers, a group born out of the AIDS epidemic that ravaged San Francisco in the 1980s. The group usually meets a half-dozen times a year and has tackled other global threats such as Ebola and swine flu.

By mid-March, group members were alarmed by the spread of the virus since an initial case in the state was confirmed Jan. 26. Dr. Sara Cody, the top doctor in Santa Clara County, home to 2 million residents and the headquarters of Apple and Google, told her peers that COVID-19 cases were doubling every three days. In neighboring San Mateo County, every test conducted was coming back positive, shared Morrow. Across the bay in Alameda County, Dr. Erica Pan reported that cases were rising in areas bordering Santa Clara County.

Cars drive west on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, March 17, 2020.. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

A day later, the San Francisco Bay Area became the first place in the nation to order residents to stay home. At least 20 other California counties adopted the Bay Area order within hours. Two days later, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all 40 million Californians to stay home unless they had essential jobs.

It’s impossible to quantify how much those orders helped or truly compare states or countries because of other potential factors such as population density, international travel and the number of tests being conducted in each place. However, experts in disease control say the Bay Area’s early intervention clearly played a significant role in slowing the speed of infection throughout California.

On March 15, California reported 335 cases and six deaths. As of Sunday morning, the state had confirmed more than 30,800 cases and nearly 1,150 deaths. The slowing rate of infection, at 73 per 100,000 residents as of Friday, and deaths is one one of the reasons Newsom says the state can contemplate reopening businesses.

The area is now reaping the benefit of putting stringent recommendations in place “very, very early,” said Robyn Gershon, a clinical professor of epidemiology at New York University’s School of Global Public Health.

“In New York, by the time social distancing came we already had many, many people sick. Without tests, without a vaccine, your only tool is having people not contact each other,” Gershon said.

Just a few days after California’s order, with the number of infections above 15,000 in New York state and more than 100 dead, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered businesses and workplaces to shut down.

Most people recover from the new coronavirus with symptoms such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

In January, the group in California began holding twice weekly phone calls to prepare for coronavirus, initially discussing how to monitor Americans returning from China, where the virus began, or how to disinfect ambulances that had transported COVID-19 patients.

But on March 15, the call focused on “extreme social distancing.” Marin County Public Health Director Dr. Matt Willis wondered whether such a radical measure was needed in his county, which at the time had only 10 cases. But with no federal or state guidance, he soon agreed “an aggressive approach to a shelter-in-place policy was really the one lever that we had.”

Cody, who has been credited by many for driving the urgency during that call and whose county was the first to declare a state of emergency in California, told colleagues of increasing hospitalization rates there, sharing early data from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention community survey that found about one in 10 of those seeking medical care for flu-like symptoms at public clinics had coronavirus.

“We realized we were not that far behind what was happening in Italy,” the Santa Clara County health director said.

On March 15, Italy’s hospitals were already overwhelmed, with more than 1,800 having died. Less than a week earlier, officials had imposed countrywide, strict stay-at-home orders after they failed to contain the outbreak in the hard-hit north. The death toll has now climbed to nearly 23,000. The European country had confirmed its first two cases on Jan. 31.

Officials have contemplated why San Francisco Bay Area residents have largely complied.

Californians were already seeing daily images of a cruise ship off California’s coast with at least 21 confirmed coronavirus infections aboard before it docked on March 9, so the virus was front-of-mind. Tech conferences that typically bring international travelers to the Bay Area each spring were being canceled and tech companies from Silicon Valley to San Francisco began telling employees to work from home. It’s also the makeup of the Bay Area, officials say, including people with connections around the country and world.

San Francisco residents generally are willing to comply with such things “when shown the science, when shown the data about what can be accomplished,” said Dr. Susan Philip, director of disease prevention and control at the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

In the month since, Bay Area residents have largely continued to heed the mandate, quickly understanding the concept of “flattening the curve” to slow the rate of infection and avoid overwhelming hospitals.

“The timing of instituting the stay-at-home order is very, very critical in blunting the epidemic,” said Lee Riley, a professor of epidemiology and infectious diseases at the University of California Berkeley. He warned, though, that complacency could ruin any initial success, noting “we need to remain vigilant.”

Still, a challenge looms for the Bay Area doctors who continue to talk to each other twice a week: How to lift the shelter-in-place orders without creating a second surge.

“We’re going to be relying on the same kind of partnership that we relied upon for the first stage of this to help us through,” Willis said.

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SF Man Perks Up North Beach Neighbors With Free, Fresh Coffee

From his kitchen window, quarantined San Francisco designer Ben Ramirez dispenses free coffee with a smile to people in his North Beach neighborhood.

SF Man Perks Up North Beach Neighbors With Free, Fresh Coffee

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS/CNN) — From his kitchen window, quarantined San Franciscan Ben Ramirez dispenses free coffee with a smile to people in his North Beach neighborhood.

“Even if they don’t get a cup of coffee, they can stop at the window and chat,” the North Beach resident said.

On average, Ramirez makes about 10 to 15 cups a day. His “regulars” are essential workers.

“We have a lot of people in the neighborhood who either are nurses, doctors or postal workers. They’re out there on the front lines risking their lives every day. They deserve something and they’re always happy to see us in the morning.”

In compliance with the six-feet social distancing guideline, he hands out the coffee with a toy gorilla arm, an idea given to him by his five-year-old son, Luca.

“He’s very proud of the fact that it was his idea.”

At home coffee shop

Ramirez starts his day early — around 6:30 a.m.

“We have two kids. They’re usually our alarm clock.”

After making breakfast for his sons Juno and Luca, he’s at his kitchen window from 8 a.m. to noon, serving his community, seven days a week.

“My wife has been gracious to move her meetings to later in the afternoon. So she can watch the boys in the morning and I can hand out my coffee. And then we have lunch together and we hand off and I hang out with the boys. We try and make it a good day.”

Ramirez offers two different roasts of coffee: a light roast and a medium roast. Each cup is brewed fresh.

“If someone asks for a coffee, I grind the beans and then I put it in a little filter and do pour-over coffee. I’ve actually met a lot of neighbors who I didn’t know that have been on the same street as me since I’ve lived here. So that’s a big plus of doing this too.”

The beginning of a dream

Ramirez has been a designer for 20 years.

“I work in tech. So I manage design teams and creative teams, building out their apps and websites for startup companies.” But one of his dreams is to open a café and a coffee roasting company.

“I’ve been doing a lot of training for that — getting certified in roasting coffee and barista work. And sensory work — being able to pick out flavors and quality of coffee beans.”

The coffee connoisseur already had most of the supplies he needed for his latest project.

“I did an order on Amazon of cups and lids and I bought a sandwich board too and a letter board for a menu.”

Customers can request additions to their coffee — what Ramirez calls a secret menu option.

“When we were just starting to shelter in place, my wife ordered cases of oat milk and almond milk. So, I have plenty of milk to put in people’s coffee if they want it.”

And now that most coffee shops are closed due to the pandemic, the aspiring barista’s small gesture is bringing a big sense of joy to a neighborhood he’s lived in for two decades.

While the coffee is free, Ramirez is accepting donations through Venmo.

“We are in a little neighborhood called North Beach. There’s a very vibrant and historical coffee scene here. I think a lot of people are missing that social interaction. It’s been nice to bring the community together.”

KPIX 5’s Joe Vazquez contributed to this report
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