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12 Healdsburg District Hospital employees test positive for the coronavirus; no patients infected

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Twelve Healdsburg District Hospital employees have tested positive for the coronavirus, prompting the testing of nearly all of the hospital’s 320 workers, public health officials said Tuesday.

It’s the second county hospital beset with the virus infecting a group of employees. In August, Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, the county’s largest medical center, dealt with an outbreak affecting 26 workers and a handful of patients.

Jim Schuessler, chief executive of Healdsburg hospital, said the coronavirus infections among employees are a reminder Sonoma County is experiencing a high infection rate and extra precautions must be taken.

Indeed, on Tuesday, state public health officials decided the county will remain where it’s been since late August: in the most restrictive stage of the state’s four-stage community reopening regimen. That bottom tier, which Sonoma shares with only eight of the state’s 58 counties, denotes communities struggling most with widespread COVID-19 transmission.

Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer, said the broad testing Monday of Healdsburg hospital workers, as well as ongoing contact tracing of those already infected will shed critical light on the situation.

By the end of the week, it should be clear whether the infections of individual workers are unrelated, or if the hospital has an outbreak on its hands in which employees spread the virus to each other, Schuessler said.

Hospital officials said Tuesday they thought the dozen infected workers contracted COVID-19 between Oct. 10 and Oct. 24 outside work in the community. No patients have been infected, hospital officials said, noting every patient admitted is tested for the virus.

It wasn’t yet clear if any of the 12 employees infected either live or drive to work together, said Gina Fabiano, a hospital spokeswoman.

Mase said county public health staff members are assisting the hospital’s efforts to trace close contacts the infected workers might have exposed and offering guidance and technical assistance. Public health officials recommended to the hospital that it test its entire team of employees, and as of Tuesday 287 of them were tested.

The hospital said initial infections were discovered through its own public health screening such as temperature checks.

After tests confirmed the virus, those employees immediately were sent home to quarantine, hospital officials said. The 12 employees worked in several different departments, Fabiano said.

The cases among staff have not forced the cancellation of any patient appointments, she said; however, workers in smaller departments might have trouble covering a shift left open due to an infected employee at home isolating.

Regarding the continuing wide transmission of the virus in the county, Mase said residents need to do their part to adhere to prudent social distancing and wear face coverings, as county health experts ramp up their battle against the pandemic disease that emerged in mid-March.

Last week, the county launched a $16 million long-term enhanced public health effort to try to get the virus transmission under control.

With an average adjusted daily transmission rate of 10.2 new cases per 100,000 people, the county falls well short of the 7 cases per 100,000 needed to advance to a less restrictive stage for businesses and public venues under the state’s reopening plan.

Mase said every day local residents send her photos of people gathering in area parks and other places without masks.

“I know there’s a lot of frustration and we’re doing everything we can,” she said. “Many people are doing the right thing, but even if 10 or 20% of the people don’t, it’s going to really set us back.”

Meanwhile, Schuessler, the Healdsburg hospital CEO, said the medical center continues to be an “extremely safe environment” for staff and patients during the pandemic.

"However, we cannot control the actions of individuals once they leave our facilities, placing the burden of responsibility squarely on the shoulders of each individual to ensure their own protection,” Schuessler said.

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

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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