SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- There was a point in January, with COVID-19 cases at their peak and intensive care beds nearly nonexistent, when San Diego County Board of Supervisors chair Nathan Fletcher feared the local healthcare system might collapse under the weight of the virus.
“I was very worried. When you get down to single-digit ICU beds, that’s one horrific car accident away from having no ICU beds,” he said. “We never ran out of hospital beds. We never had to take someone off a ventilator... but we got awfully close.”
Those were some of the “darkest days” of the pandemic, Supervisor Fletcher recalled, but Tuesday marked the brightest yet: California ended most mask requirements for vaccinated individuals and eliminated all capacity restrictions on business. It marked the first day without capacity limits in San Diego County in 459 days.
In a wide-ranging interview with ABC 10News on Tuesday, Supervisor Fletcher recounted some of the pandemic’s pivotal moments from the room at the County Emergency Operations Center where staff operated a 24-7 hub for the first several months.
“This was the most unprecedented event of our lifetime. We have not faced a situation like this as a country for 100 years,” Fletcher said. “I think today we ought to take a moment of reflection, but also a moment of appreciation for each other. We made it through this.”
Shortly after planes carrying American evacuees from Wuhan arrived at MCAS Miramar, San Diego County declared a public health emergency on February 14. San Diego was the second county in California to do so, after Santa Clara County.
In March, Fletcher and other county leaders would meet inside the Emergency Operations Center to flesh out the first local restrictions on businesses and review the disease modeling that would be prompt school closures.
Fletcher announced on March 16 that bars and in-person dining throughout the county would be shuttered and gatherings restricted to 50 people or less. The state implemented a mandatory stay-at-home order three days later.
“Nobody wants to close a restaurant but we had to,” he said.
In April, Fletcher announced the county would make masks mandatory in public, two months before the state would require the same.
“I think those interventions -- early state of emergency, early mask requirement, early testing, early vaccines -- put us in a better position as a county. But it was certainly very controversial,” he said.
Fletcher became the face of the county’s efforts to enforce the health orders and perhaps the biggest target for criticism for San Diegans opposed to the restrictions outside of Governor Gavin Newsom.
The supervisor confirmed he received death threats, and he recalled a moment on Christmas Eve while he was home with his five kids.
“One of your kids says, ‘Daddy, we should take the police officer outside some cookies because they’re not with their family tonight and it’s a holiday,’” he said, referring to their police detail.
Then came January, when San Diego’s available ICU beds plummeted to the single digits.
“At the same time we had the highest cases and the highest hospitalizations, we had a galvanized and motivated group of people saying this is all a scam -- when 200 people a day are dying of COVID,” he said.
Fletcher said the human toll played out before his eyes. He said he used a conference room inside the Medical Examiner’s Office almost daily.
“They had a screen there as I walked in and walked out that literally showed the carts rolling in with people who died. We brought in refrigerated units to be able to store the excess bodies. So there was a daily reminder that this is very real,” he said.
The Marine veteran says the whole thing reminded him of combat -- changing intel, tough choices, stakes that couldn’t be higher.
COVID-19 remains a threat for people who are unvaccinated, he said, but for the vast majority of San Diegans who got the shots?
“We made it through. And now we get to resume our life hopefully with a deeper appreciation of the things that maybe we took for granted,” he said.