Coronavirus testing can be mandatory, but Sonoma County hoping it won’t come to that

The law that allows health officials to require testing, among other health measures, has roots in past maladies, including U.S. attempts to corral tuberculosis.|

Perhaps not many more than two dozen people in Sonoma County have declined to be tested for COVID-19 amid the ongoing pandemic, giving county officials the sense that mandatory testing and tracing are unlikely to be needed in any future step to control spread of the deadly disease.

“That’s a good sign,” said Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer. “I think most people want to know what their status is, especially if they’ve been in contact or they’re at risk.”

But Mase, who joined the county in March after past work at the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noted that there is precedent in public health law for imposing mandates on individuals related to testing, tracing contacts and quarantine. That law has roots in past maladies, including U.S. attempts to corral tuberculosis, another highly contagious illness that, like COVID-19, ravages the respiratory system.

While the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said that employers may require COVID-19 testing for workers under certain conditions, resorting to those mandates at this point is seen as a last step, one that few U.S. jurisdictions have taken. Exceptions include the Department of Health in virus-stricken New York City, which in March began to require testing for certain public workers, and San Francisco, which last week announced a plan to require universal testing at skilled nursing facilities.

“I’m really hoping we don’t run into that,” Mase said in a recent press call. “I don’t think we’ll go there.”

If anything, Sonoma County has shown that it doesn’t yet have the infrastructure in place to test all of those who want to know if they are infected with coronavirus.

After a surge of local residents signed up for free ?diagnostic testing this week at two new state-run sites, at Santa Rosa High School and the Petaluma campus of Santa Rosa Junior College, county officials sought and secured a state commitment to double the testing capacity of those two sites.

And the call for local antibody testing to detect past infections was answered this week by health officials, who said they could begin such testing by next month.

Still, California law gives broad leeway to local health officers like Mase in times of disease outbreaks like the coronavirus pandemic, requiring officers to “take whatever steps deemed necessary for the investigation and control” of the disease in question, in addition to steps deemed “necessary” beyond those outlined in state codes.

That could include mandatory testing and contact tracing to stem the pandemic - but the county has shown no sign it will move to do that. Jennifer Larocque, a county spokeswoman, acknowledged the government’s authority on that count but emphasized that such a step could require could require a court order to move forward.

“The residents of Sonoma County have been voluntarily engaged in protecting their health and the health of the community,” Larocque said in a statement. “We’ve seen this through individuals’ willingness to share their recent contacts if they test positive, and when those contacts agree to be tested. We don’t anticipate any changes to our community’s participation in our combined effort to trace and control coronavirus locally.”

Protests this weekend and last against shelter-in-place requirements displayed some of the collective defiance against the government-imposed restrictions, including basic mandates that people wear face masks when out in public in situations when they are unable to maintain 6 feet of space with others.

However, an April poll conducted for the California Health Care Foundation showed that a large majority in California approve of the shelter requirements. Similar results have been consistent in other polls of Americans over the past month despite scattered protests, some of which have been boosted by conservative groups with roots in the tea party movement, as well as anti-vaccination activists, the New York Times has reported.

But any opposition to government-backed testing has not appeared to have surfaced as a rallying cry for such groups.

Mase said she was aware only of a couple of people who declined a test because they apparently didn’t want to drive to a testing site, preferring instead for the county to come to them. That prospect was discounted as “too much work,” she said, because the expected sample yield from testing those patients, who were already isolating, would have been low, making them a lower priority, Mase said.

“If we really wanted to, we could send - and we have been sending - nurses out to homes to test, say, older folks that can’t come out, that type of thing,” she said.

On Saturday, the number of coronavirus cases in Sonoma County rose by 9, for a total of 309 people infected since the pandemic began. Of that number, 138 cases are considered active, 168 people have recovered and three people have died.

It’s unclear exactly how many people have refused testing, according to the county. Fewer than 25 people - the county was not more specific - have declined because “they stated they were not ill and didn’t feel it was necessary,” said Mary Miller, supervising public health nurse with Sonoma County, through a county spokeswoman.

“We do ask contacts to come to us for testing because we have limited protective equipment and to go to everyone’s home individually would not be effective and (we) would run out of protective supplies quickly,” Miller said.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or On Twitter @wsreports.

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