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Coronavirus testing finally arrives in Sonoma County as hospitals gear up for more patients

How To Reduce Your Risk

Local health officials urge practicing good hygiene to reduce the risk of becoming infected with a respiratory virus, such as the flu or coronavirus. This includes:

• Washing hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds

• Avoid touching your eyes and face

• Cough or sneeze into your sleeved elbow

• Stay home when ill

• Get a flu shot, and it's not too late this season

Source: Sonoma County Department of Health Services

For more information, go to sonomacounty.ca.gov/Health/Information-About-Coronavirus.

Questions or concerns can be directed to the county's 24-hour information hotline at 211 or 800-325-9604. You can also text "COVID19" to 211211 for coronavirus information.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

The first coronavirus test kit arrived in Sonoma County Friday afternoon as local hospitals were gearing up for the possibility of treating more coronavirus patients.

The kit - which is capable of testing more than 200 samples - will be used on a trial basis to demonstrate to state and federal health officials that the county is capable of conducting accurate local testing.

“We are absolutely ramping up efforts to ensure that all persons who may potentially be at risk for the coronavirus have the ability to be tested and have a test result,” said Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s interim health officer.

County health officials have requested enough kits to perform 900 tests, and they hope to receive the rest of the kits beginning next week.

Mase, a former official with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, said the test kits will give the county the ability to broaden testing beyond the former passengers of the Grand Princess cruise ship.

The test kits arrived on a day when the condition of one of the county’s two coronavirus patients has reportedly worsened, according to sources at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital. Sutter Health administration declined to comment on the matter, citing privacy laws.

Hospital officials at the county’s three major hospitals and public health officials have declined to comment on where coronavirus patients or suspected cases are being treated, again citing privacy laws under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.

In an interview Friday afternoon, Dr. Mase and Barbie Robinson, the county’s health services director, described the coronavirus test kit’s arrival as a turning point in local public health efforts. Last week, the CDC expanded its guidelines to allow doctors to order coronavirus testing on their patients exhibiting certain symptoms, provided other illnesses have been ruled out.

“We would expect the testing will increase,” Mase said, because testing will no longer be limited to people who have had direct contact with a patient or have traveled from a place where there are cases.

Health officials said the local lab has the capacity to test 14 ?patients a day. Results can be obtained much sooner than when they were being sent to a state-run lab in Contra Costa County or the CDC in Atlanta, officials said.

“If we test, we could have a test result in 24 hours and that’s the beauty of having a local lab,” Robinson said.

Meanwhile, local hospitals are gearing up for the potential of more coronavirus patients, as well as people suffering from influenza and other respiratory diseases.

At Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, a large white tent was erected Thursday outside the emergency department in preparation for a potential surge in patients. The tent, visible from Highway 101, is the clearest sign of ramped up efforts to address the local health emergency.

“It can also provide a space to triage patients with respiratory illnesses away from the general population to minimize spread of illness,” said Angeline Sheets, a Sutter spokeswoman.

On Friday, some hospital staff expressed concern over potential exposure to patients being treated for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. One Sutter nurse, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said some staff have been exposed to potential coronavirus patients. The nurse said a number of staff have been sent home on self quarantines, including physicians.

Sutter issued quarantine orders this week to at least 30 of its hospital workers who had contact with a patient with the coronavirus, according to SEIU-?United Healthcare Workers West, the union representing most front-line hospital staff.

The union revealed the quarantine Thursday, the same day Sonoma County public health officials announced a second confirmed case of COVID-19 from a local resident seeking care at an undisclosed Santa Rosa hospital.

Both of Sonoma County’s cases traveled on a February round-trip cruise on the Grand Princess ship from San Francisco to Mexico and returned home on a shuttle from the port to Sonoma County, public health officials said.

While some Sutter staff described the atmosphere at the hospital as one of concern and worry over possible exposure, another nurse applauded recent steps taken at the hospital to ensure both patient and staff safety.

The nurse, who also asked to remain anonymous because she was not authorized to speak to the media, said hospital staff have been undergoing daily training, and more protective gear has been brought in for people working with potential coronavirus patients.

How To Reduce Your Risk

Local health officials urge practicing good hygiene to reduce the risk of becoming infected with a respiratory virus, such as the flu or coronavirus. This includes:

• Washing hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds

• Avoid touching your eyes and face

• Cough or sneeze into your sleeved elbow

• Stay home when ill

• Get a flu shot, and it's not too late this season

Source: Sonoma County Department of Health Services

For more information, go to sonomacounty.ca.gov/Health/Information-About-Coronavirus.

Questions or concerns can be directed to the county's 24-hour information hotline at 211 or 800-325-9604. You can also text "COVID19" to 211211 for coronavirus information.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

“The staff at the hospital are calm, quiet and engaged and ready to take on the care of our community in a manner that is safe,” she said.

The nurse said hospital staff and administration are doing the best they can and are not to blame for their response to the coronavirus emergency. She said federal health care guidance did not come soon enough.

“Our government should have reacted to this months ago,” she said. “There was no way to know what was coming our way.

Dr. Bill Isenberg, Sutter Health’s chief quality and safety officer, said Sutter has a long history of caring for patients with complex illnesses, including infectious diseases. Staff have been trained to address infectious respiratory illnesses, including the coronavirus, and the hospital works closely with county health departments and the CDC to address COVID-19 related issues, Dr. Isenberg said.

“Like with any droplet-based respiratory infection, there is a risk of infection, but workers can help prevent that by following proper PPE guidance,” he said.

At Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center, staff regularly participate in drills using various disaster scenarios, including detection of infectious diseases. Such drills are conducted at all of Kaiser’s facilities across the country, said Dr. David Witt, Kaiser’s national infectious disease leader.

Dr. Witt said the new coronavirus, a member of the same family of viruses that causes colds, does not appear to be as severe as more virulent strains in this family, including SARS and MERS. But he said like those strains, the new coronavirus can progress to pneumonia.

He said that while the potential public health threat posed by COVID-19 is very high in the United States and globally, at this time, the CDC believes that most people in the United States will have little immediate risk of exposure to this virus.

“This virus is not currently spreading widely in the United States,” he said. “However, it is important to note that current global circumstances suggest it is likely that this virus will cause a pandemic.”

Witt said Kaiser has opened a national command center to prepare staff and facilities for potentially large numbers of Kaiser members who may become ill or are concerned they are ill.

He said Kaiser patients with symptoms will in most cases be isolated in Kaiser medical centers. Those who are otherwise healthy with mild symptoms may be sent home to “convalesce in isolation from others with regular monitoring by clinicians via phone or other means,” he said.

Christian Hill, a spokesman for St. Joseph Health, which operates Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, said clinical staff and caregivers are strictly adhering to federal infectious disease protocols, including asking all incoming patients about their recent travel or contact with those who have traveled abroad. Appropriate steps are being taken for those who may have been exposed, he said.

“In the event we are treating a patient with an infectious disease, we take appropriate precautions, such as placing the patient in isolation, including a negative pressure room,” he said, adding that staff work in concert with local public health authorities and the CDC.

Dr. Mase, the interim health officer, said the public health response to the new coronavirus is evolving as more information about disease is discovered.

“We are definitely improving as we have more information,” she said. “And most likely things will change rapidly over the course of the next few months as we have more information.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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