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Sonoma County winemaking club hit with COVID outbreak

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

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

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By the time Dec. 11 rolled around, the Garage Enologists of Sonoma County were a bit starved for normalcy.

The well-established amateur winemaking club had conducted most of its monthly meetings via Zoom since the start of the pandemic.

Its 2021 Christmas party would allow members to come together to share “ideas, problems, and wine,” as the organization’s website frames their mission. And for the first time in nearly two years, they would gather indoors.

“We celebrated the fact that we could have a Christmas party,” said Garage Enologists president Mary Lou Marek. “It was wonderful to see people again, and now … I guess it’s two steps forward, one step back.”

The first signs of something wrong began three days after the event, which was held at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Healdsburg. That’s when one of the club members called Marek to report what they believed were cold symptoms. Within hours, that caller and another member had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Concerned, Marek sent a cautionary note to every attendee the following day. Some replied that they, too, weren’t feeling well.

Marek has not attempted a systematic count. But she talked to everyone in the club, and by her estimation, half to three-quarters of the partygoers wound up infected — perhaps 25-30 of the 45 people who met at Good Shepherd Lutheran.

At the time, Marek believed her group was an unfortunate exception. The scenario, as it turns out, has become all too commonplace during the rise of the omicron variant.

“It’s something that’s coming up very frequently,” said Dr. Lee Riley, professor of epidemiology and infectious diseases at UC Berkeley.

In fact, Riley said, his own family has been dealing with a similar situation. His sister-in-law recently flew in from New York to visit, and unwittingly brought omicron with her. The professor’s family had to curtail its holiday dinner, and it took his sister-in-law 10 days to clear her symptoms and get a negative test result.

“There was a period of time where we didn’t know exactly what to do,” Riley said. “It’s something a lot of people having social gatherings are faced with. And I think we’ll continue this over several months.”

The Sonoma County Department of Health Services does not release information on individual outbreaks. But Kate Pack, the county’s chief epidemiologist, acknowledged the trend isn’t good.

“We can confirm that post-vaccination cases have increased since omicron,” Pack said in an email, “and Public Health has been following at least two COVID-19 outbreaks with high rates of transmission following holiday parties where stable cohorts of fully vaccinated people gathered indoors without wearing masks.”

Marek spoke freely to the Press Democrat about the Garage Enologists’ experience because she wants community members to understand the realities of a winter COVID surge: While vaccination is proving highly effective in limiting severe outcomes, it is not an impenetrable shield against infection, especially against the now-dominant omicron variant.

“We did everything right,” Marek said ruefully. “We were so careful.”

Indeed, the Garage Enologists have been COVID sticklers, doing only what is permitted in Sonoma and Marin counties, their geographic base. The amateur enologists took advantage of loosened restrictions that allowed smaller groups to remove their masks to eat and drink. But they took the vaccination mandate seriously when they reentered the church hall at Good Shepherd.

One GENCO member is a nurse, Marek said, and they meticulously checked vaccination cards upon entry. And while Marek doesn’t know for certain, she believes most, if not all, of her fellow members had received booster shots.

None of that prevented the virus from raging through the group.

The county did not state whether it performed any genetic sequencing for this cluster of cases. But, Marek said, the health department outbreak manager assigned to the case advised her to assume it was omicron, given the breadth of infection, the rapid onset and the modest symptoms. UC Berkeley’s Riley agreed.

“I think given what we now know, that’s a good bet for what caused that outbreak among the winemakers,” he said. “It was highly transmissible. These people were vaccinated, but they got infected. It fits everything we know about omicron.”

Riley said omicron almost certainly accounts for more than 50% of coronavirus cases in California now, though the true number is hard to pin down.

Less extreme symptoms are what Riley calls “the silver lining in all of this.” While omicron is believed to be several times more transmissible than delta, and many times more infectious than the version of the SARS-CoV-2 virus first identified early in 2020, it is not particularly virulent — meaning it has low rates of hospitalization and death — among the vaccinated.

The vaccines’ effectiveness against omicron, and the relatively high levels of immunization here, make Riley confident we can avoid the sort of strain that nearly overwhelmed the region’s hospitals a year ago.

“I think in the Bay Area, we’ll probably be OK. Knock on wood,” he said. “A lot of the hospitalizations we’re seeing in other places are occurring among people who are not vaccinated. And primarily in states where they haven’t pushed the mandate. The Bay Area has always been consistently vigilant about following through on the guidelines.”

As Pack noted, unvaccinated residents are currently 3.5 times more likely to become infected with COVID-19 in Sonoma County, 15.9 times more likely to be hospitalized with the virus and 13.7 times more likely to die from it.

One reason the amateur winemakers were being so careful, Marek said, is because the club skews older, putting members at greater risk of serious illness. But they appear to have held their own against this wave of the virus.

“Anyone who told me anything said they thought it was a cold or allergies,” Marek noted. “No one was stuck in bed or all that stuff. Again, this is a vaccinated and boosted population.”

Just the same, the Garage Enologists will be taking their meetings back to Zoom for the foreseeable future. They think they can be an example of what to do, and what not to do, over the turbulent weeks ahead.

“It’s interesting, because now that we know omicron is out there, we wouldn’t have parties,” Marek said. “But hindsight is different.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

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

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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