Humboldt County hasn’t yet ID’d flight passengers possibly exposed to COVID-19

At a special meeting Thursday, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors practiced social-distancing: Supervisor Steve Madrone called into the meeting and Supervisor Mike Wilson sat at a table facing the board dais to stay more than six feet away from Supervisor Rex Bohn. (Screenshot)
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Humboldt County is still trying to track down passengers on recent flights to the airport in McKinleyville that health officials believe were exposed to the coronavirus.

The county’s board of supervisors on Thursday explored options for identifying the passengers, who are now at risk for both having and spreading the virus locally. Two flights to the airport — from Los Angeles (March 16) and San Francisco (March 18) — may have been points of exposure, the county announced last week.

Officials made clear there’s no blueprint for identifying passengers on flights to the region, but multiple supervisors said Thursday they had heard from people who claimed to be on the flights. The callers had learned that the flights were at risk through reading media reports.

“Are we using law enforcement to track (the list of passengers) down?” 1st District Supervisor Rex Bohn asked. “I know I got a call from someone who was on the plane and they hadn’t been contacted yet.”

County health officer Dr. Teresa Frankovich, addressing the board, said any air travel at this point is dangerous because there are few places she would call “low-risk areas” amid the global coronavirus pandemic.

“In reality, I consider everyone coming off the plane as being at potential (risk) for exposure in some fashion,” Frankovich said. “Those individuals who return from travel all should be quarantined for 14 days.”

Airport officials aren’t at liberty to know who’s coming off flights, since “they do not receive passenger lists and have no way to account for that,” Frankovich said.

But multiple supervisors pushed for more vigilance on the air front.

Estelle Fennell, the 2nd District supervisor, suggested the county could have staff take down names at the airport, an effort that wouldn’t expend many resources, she said, since there are now very few daily flights coming to town.

Bohn, meanwhile, offered the federal Department of Homeland Security as a potential resource for passenger information.

“This is not protected information,” Bohn said. “We’re not reinventing the wheel. Getting that name four days later — the horses are out and we’re shutting the gate.”

Frankovich has said the county airport will remain open during the coronavirus pandemic, citing that some people (including care providers) may still rely on flights as essential travel.

Aviation director Cody Roggatz has declined recent requests for an interview but told the Times-Standard last month that passengers are not being screened at the airport.

The coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, has spread exponentially throughout the globe. Confirmed cases in Humboldt County are rising quickly; at press time, there are 12 patients who have tested positive including one who has been hospitalized because of the illness.

Supervisors continued to push for new strategies to limit the virus’ spread locally.

Steve Madrone, the 5th District supervisor, said he’s hearing of short-term rentals in Trinidad being offered to people wanting to get away to Humboldt County. That issue is being discussed in a special Trinidad City Council meeting on Friday.

Madrone asked if the county could conceive a policy requiring that only health care workers coming to provide services could occupy short-term rental housing. Frankovich offered that it would take a “balancing act” to make housing available to both care providers and local residents.

“I agree very much with you that this is not a tourist destination right now,” Frankovich said of the local area. “We do need to limit people arriving here for non-essential purposes.”

At several times during the meeting — which faced several technical disruptions due to various officials phoning in — the board pushed for greater social distancing during the shelter-in-place order.

His voice raised, Bohn called for more people to stay at home, though he credited most local residents for following orders.

“There are some people out there taking advantage of a situation,” Bohn said. “If you have to ask if you’re essential, you’re not.”

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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