Dr. Scott Morrow, who has the distinction of being the longest-serving county health officer in the state of California, has been mincing no words from the start of the pandemic. And while he previously advocated for caution in San Mateo County to slow the spread of the coronavirus, he's now pushing back on the state's "dimmer switch" method of reopening and re-closing various types of businesses.
Calling the state's watch-list construct "arbitrary" and the shutdown actions in San Mateo County this week "misdirected," Morrow has once again taken to the public health department website to issue a candid statement. This comes shortly after the county became the last of the nine in the Bay Area to land on the watch list, due to the fact that it was averaging more than 100 cases per 100,000 people over 14 days.
"I wish to apologize to all the businesses that were closed this week," he begins. "This action is a bit like looking for your lost keys under a streetlight even though you lost them miles away." He cites the fact that San Mateo County has relatively stable or decreasing daily case counts and hospitalization numbers, and the fact that San Francisco was placed on the watch list two weeks prior despite the fact that it took a more conservative approach to reopening businesses.
"For those who want to drive the spread to zero, this is simply not possible," Morrow says, noting that even with the almost complete lockdown in March and April, the county was only able to bring the Re rate to 0.9 — anything below 1 means that each infected person is infecting less than one other person, on average.
"We also have a good idea of what’s causing the spread and it’s not primarily from barber shops, nail salons, or the other businesses that were targeted in this most recent closure," he continues. "While it’s certainly a theoretical possibility that some transmission can occur in the businesses/operations that were just closed by the State, there is no evidence that I have, and no evidence the State has provided to me, that leads me to believe the spread is higher in these businesses than those businesses/operations that are allowed to operate."
He goes on to refer to the "arbitrary and constantly changing framework" for getting on and off the state's watch list, calling it "fundamentally flawed." And he says "the State has made the wrong 'diagnosis' and therefore is prescribing the wrong 'treatment' for San Mateo County." He pushes back on the re-closings, suggesting that too much is being lost on the economic side without equivalent gains on the public health side.
Morrow's statements are likely to cause some further stir among business owners in his own county and beyond, as health orders continue to limit commerce in countless ways. And while many officials seem to agree that reopening too quickly was to blame for the rapid uptick in cases across the state in July, Morrow seems to suggest that this is too broad of a conclusion — and it's true that no data has been presented to suggest that virus transmission has been widely occurring in nail salons versus restaurants or bowling alleys.
In more candid comments to KPIX, Morrow says that he likes the watch list to the "Hotel California," "you can always check in, but you can never leave."
Morrow also spoke to the San Mateo Daily Journal on Thursday, saying, "I hope [state officials] hear and incorporate these comments into their thinking. I have no idea if this will be effective or not but I’m the longest running health officer in the state but [my confidence is] neither high nor low. I’m optimistic they understand this process is failing and they need to fix it."
In previous statements on the county website, Morrow has pointed to the evidence the state does have that continued transmission of the virus is primarily attributable to essential workers leaving the home and then bringing the virus back to communal and overcrowded living situations, including multi-generational households.
"I applaud the many great, broad and appropriate actions taken by the Governor over these last few months," Morrow concludes in his statement. "He has shown great leadership and nothing said above can or should take away from that. Unfortunately, in this instance, and in my opinion, the Governor isn’t being given good advice."
Previously: San Mateo Health Officer Says Society Would Need to 'Grind to a Halt' to Stop COVID-19