Delta variant leads to rapid rise of hospitalizations in Sonoma County
Just two months ago, Sonoma County seemed on the verge of defeating the coronavirus pandemic.
There were a mere 10 new infections a day, and the average daily number of people being treated for the virus at local hospitals was eight.
Today, the highly infectious and more transmissible delta mutation — the most dominant COVID-19 strain in the United States — is spreading rapidly countywide, mostly among unvaccinated residents.
There are more than 45 new daily infections and the average number of COVID-19 hospital patients countywide has increased to 42 since the July 4 holiday weekend. On Friday, the county topped 1,000 active cases for the first time since March, when only about a quarter of residents 16 and older were fully vaccinated, according to its COVID-19 data portal.
Coronavirus-related deaths, which lag hospitalization spikes by about a week, already have started a steady climb. In July alone, nine more county residents so far have died from complications of the dreaded respiratory disease. Only one fatality in May was attributed to the pandemic disease. Area medical experts fear additional deaths are inevitable, the fallout of a recent surge they say was totally preventable.
“This is a vaccine-preventable disease, and I think it’s really tragic that people are getting ill because of the choice they’re making to not get vaccinated,” said Dr. Gary Green, an infectious disease specialist at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital.
“There are other countries where people would give their right arm for a vaccine and they’re desperate for vaccine,” Green said. “And in the United States, a country of such resources, we’re just making bad choices.”
‘Not out of the woods’
This week, federal health officials warned the nation was “not out of the woods yet” and is once again at “another pivotal point in this pandemic.” Officials said the dangerous delta mutation is ravaging communities with low rates of inoculation.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pleaded with unvaccinated people to take “the delta variant seriously.”
“This virus has no incentive to let up, and it remains in search of the next vulnerable person to infect,” Walensky said.
Green said 99% of his COVID-19 patients have not had their shots against the virus. He said he often encounters feelings of remorse among many of them.
Some vaccine-resistant residents, he said, are preferring to risk the possibility of getting the coronavirus as a means of protection, rather than getting vaccinated. But Green said “protection from natural immunity for COVID-19 is not as good as vaccination, and that is an unsafe and less effective strategy.”
At Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, the county’s largest hospital and the region’s highest-level trauma center, virus-related hospitalizations have sharply increased since April and May, said Dr. Chad Krilich, chief medical officer of Providence St. Joseph Health, which operates Memorial, Petaluma Valley and Healdsburg hospitals.
Krilich said during the peak of the winter pandemic surge in January and February, Memorial Hospital treated on average more than 40 COVID-19 patients a day. That number dropped to four to five virus patients in April and May.
The average number of COVID-19 patients at Memorial jumped to 14 in July, he said. Petaluma Valley, which had an average of one virus patient daily in April and May, now has roughly seven. Similar increases are occurring at Healdsburg District Hospital, he said.
As of Friday, there were 44 confirmed COVID-19 patients at the county’s acute care hospitals, according to state public health data. During the peak of the winter pandemic surge, 110 virus patients were being treated at local hospitals.
A good sign, Krilich said, is that the total number of local Providence St. Joseph Health patients dying of COVID-19 is 20% of what it was during the winter surge. With pandemic deaths trailing hospitalizations, he acknowledged more deaths could be reported in the coming weeks.
The California Department of Public Health’s COVID-19 computer forecast modeling predicts that by Aug. 21 there will be 52 coronavirus patients at Sonoma County hospitals, and an additional 14 deaths.
If the forecast comes to pass, the county’s pandemic death toll from July 1 through that date would be 23, a marked jump from the four coronavirus patients who died in June and the single pandemic death in May.
“We are not where we were in January, and we’d like to avoid returning to that, hence the reason why we’re all really encouraging that the remaining 25% of people within the county ... which is 125,000 people, to please get vaccinated,” Krilich said.