It’s been a long month. It was a month ago yesterday when California issued its shelter in place order, and longer than that since states of emergency were declared because of coronavirus. If you watch or listen to the constant news updates, you’ve become familiar with the national experts. The local experts, however, in least in Nevada County, have been mostly quiet.
Doctor Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has become the most trusted man in America on Covid-19. You’ve also seen Doctor Deborah Birx at every White House briefing, and, if you watch Governor Newsom’s news conferences, you frequently see the state surgeon general as well. In Grass Valley and Nevada City, we’re lucky to get an occasional video message.
The Anthony Fauci, if you will, of Nevada County, is Doctor Kenneth Cutler, at least by duty. While you see Fauci everywhere, Cutler has been more than socially distant. He was out front early, and did explain the nature of the virus and how it spreads. He’s told us repeatedly to wash our hands, and more recently to wear masks when we go out, but visibility and answering questions from the media is not his strong suit. Nevada County reported its first coronavirus case on March 16. Cutler held a brief afternoon news conference to make the announcement, but also told local media beforehand that he would only take two questions each from them. He has not spoken to the media as a group since.
The first (and so far only) Covid-19 death was announced on April 3. Cutler did it in the form of a two-minute video posted on the county’s website, and then on YouTube. He did say it was an elderly person who had underlying health conditions, and was from the Truckee area, but had no other details, citing privacy concerns. He also said most other local cases have been mild, but didn’t say how many or where those cases were.
Counties much smaller than Nevada, which has a population of about 100-thousand, have complete statistical breakdowns of their reported cases. Nevada County does not. Cutler again cites privacy concerns, although saying “a 35 year-old woman from Nevada City”, for example, doesn’t seem like much of an invasion.
Cutler has made a couple of short videos since, and did make a presentation to the Board of Supervisors. During their ‘virtual’ meeting on Tuesday, Cutler again outlined privacy issues, but also said that giving out locations of the cases would give people a false reassurance that the county knows where the virus is. That’s where communication comes in. Give us the data, gives us the facts, and give us the current thinking. People are understanding if you level with them. They will be more reluctant to trust you if you don’t. During last year’s Pubic Safety Power Shutoffs, we spoke to the Office of Emergency Services director sometimes several times a day. Nothing like that from Cutler.
Other counties have daily updates. Yuba and Sutter counties (Marysville and Yuba City) share a health department. Their health officer speaks to the local media almost every day. Maybe it helps, though, that the local media really just consists of one newspaper. There are several radio stations in town, but none of them really do local news anymore.
On Thursday, neighboring and much larger Placer County (Auburn, Lincoln, Rocklin, and Roseville) relaxed some outdoor restrictions—allowing dog parks, gun and archery ranges, and golf courses to re-open. Friday morning, through a county spokesman, we basically got a ‘because he said so’ answer when asked why Dr. Cutler wouldn’t do the same thing locally. Hours later, two more coronavirus cases were reported in Nevada County—the first in close to two weeks.
Did Cutler know those cases were coming? Was it a coincidence? Are there more on the way? Are the cases mild or severe? It would be nice to hear from Cutler about this. Even his boss, County Director of Public Health Jill Blake, has been silent, occasionally answering an e-mail, or explaining why she’s too busy to talk to you.
Nevada County residents have been more than understanding when it comes to sheltering in place and social distancing, but now there are mixed messages out there. With no cases in over a week (until Friday), and the weather warming up, people want to go outside. Businesses are closed and going broke, and owners want to know how long it will be before they can open up. Frustrations are starting to mount, but Cutler remains silent. A simple explanation and straightforwardness from the ‘Fauci of Nevada County’ is all that’s needed.
What’s also frustrating from a media standpoint, is that Nevada County, under it’s current Executive Officer and the Board of Supervisors, has made a commitment to leadership and transparency. In the last year-and-a-half or so, huge strides have been made in that area. This is a step back.