San Mateo County health officer explains why he hasn’t imposed state’s stay-home order

in Community

While Dr. Scott Morrow says mask-wearing, social distancing, refraining from gathering and staying at home except for essential activities are all effective in disrupting the transmission of COVID-19, the San Mateo County health officer questions the potential effectiveness of the state’s new stay-home order, fearing the greater restrictions will “drive more activity indoors, a much riskier endeavor.”

In a statement Monday, Dr. Morrow aimed to explain why, amid a COVID-19 surge, he’s decided not to have San Mateo County join other Bay Area counties in preliminarily imposing the state’s new stay-home order restrictions. The County remains in the purple tier of the state’s Blueprint for Reopening process.

While COVID-19 cases are going up, they’re happening linearly and across all demographics, with a higher increase among 20-40 year olds, Dr. Morrow said.  San Mateo County hospitals “feel equipped to deal with a surge, as of today,” he said.

The state is requiring a minimum stay-home order for regions that fall below 15 percent ICU capacity, which includes stricter restrictions that prohibit gatherings of any kind, halt both indoor and outdoor dining, reduce retail capacity to 20 percent and close playgrounds as well as businesses such as hair salons.

As of Thursday, the Bay Area region was at 25.3 percent ICU capacity, thus the stay-home order wasn’t immediately required. But the public health officers for Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, Santa Clara and the City of Berkeley opted to impose the order anyway, concerned over continued ICU capacity reduction.

Dr. Morrow says he “wholeheartedly” supported the first shelter-in-place order in March, when the virus was brand new and there was zero immunity or public awareness about how to prevent its spread. But he says there is no data to support the increased restrictions imposed under the new stay-home order, a framework he called “rife with inexplicable inconsistencies of logic.”

“I am aware of no data that some of the business activities on which even greater restrictions are being put into place with this new order are the major drivers of transmission,” he said. “In fact, I think these greater restrictions are likely to drive more activity indoors, a much riskier endeavor.”

Dr. Morrow said he has “grave concerns about the unintended consequences of reducing our grocery store capacity to 20 percent,” and is also concerned that the new order will make it difficult for schools to open, and for schools that remain open to stay open.

“Schools have procedures to open safely even during a surge as evidenced by data,” Dr. Morrow said.

He also believes greater restrictions “will result in more job loss, more hunger, more despair and desperation” as well as more deaths from causes other than COVID.

“Surely a hard, enforced, [stay-at-home] order will certainly drive down transmission rates,” Dr. Morrow said in the statement. “But what we have before us is a symbolic gesture, it appears to be style over substance, without any hint of enforcement, and I simply don’t believe it will do much good.”

While Dr. Morrow has for 10 months advocated that people stay at home, avoid all non-essential activities, wear masks, and not gather with anyone outside their households, he doesn’t believe people will suddenly change their behavior because of a new order.

“Just because one has the legal authority to do something, doesn’t mean one has to use it, or that using it is the best course of action,” Dr. Morrow said about his position as health officer. “What I believed back in May, and what I believe now, is the power and authority to control this pandemic lies primarily in your hands, not mine.”

Despite all this, if the governor issues a stay-home order for the Bay Area, San Mateo County will support it, and new data could arise that supports taking that action without the state’s prompting, Dr. Morrow said.

“Either of these situations occurring is really quite moot, because neither absolves you of your personal, social, and moral responsibility to stop the spread and protect your fellow humans, many of whom can’t stay at home because they are protecting you, or are keeping society running, or are at high risk of death,” Dr. Morrow said.

To read Dr. Morrow’s full statement, click here.

Photo credit: San Mateo County